Sanders edges Buttigieg in New Hampshire Democratic primary, Biden finishes fifth

By John Whitesides and Amanda Becker

MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb 12 (Reuters) - Bernie Sanders strengthened his front-runner status in the race for the Democratic nomination with a narrow win in New Hampshire, dealing a setback to moderate Joe Biden as attention shifts to the next contests in the state-by-state process.

Pete Buttigieg, the moderate former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, built on his momentum with a close second-place finish after splitting much of the centrist vote with Senator Amy Klobuchar, who placed third after surging over the past few days.

The focus of the campaign to pick a Democrat to challenge Republican President Donald in November begins to shift on Wednesday to states more demographically diverse than the largely white and rural kick-off states of Iowa and New Hampshire.

"This victory here is the beginning of the end for Donald ," Sanders told supporters in Manchester, New Hampshire late Tuesday.

In a sign of the growing rivalry between Sanders, the 78-year-old self-professed democratic socialist senator, and Buttigieg, a 38-year-old moderate, Sanders' supporters booed and chanted "Wall Street Pete!" when Buttigieg's post-primary speech was shown on screens.

Turnout approached the record of 287,000 set in 2008, the year of Barack Obama's historic candidacy, easing Democrats' concerns about voter engagement after lower-than-expected turnout in Iowa.

The next contest is on Feb. 22 in Nevada, where more than one in four residents are Latino, followed a week later by South Carolina, where about one in four are African-American.

After that, 14 states including California and Texas vote in the March 3 contests known as Super Tuesday, which will also be the first time American voters see the name of the billionaire former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg on the ballot.

The Democratic field shrank to nine main candidates after businessman Andrew Yang and Senator Michael Bennet, who had trailed in the polls and performed poorly on Tuesday, dropped out.

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But even their exits provided no clear answers for Democrats trying to decide whether their best choice to challenge would be a moderate like Buttigieg, Klobuchar or Biden, or a progressive like Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, who placed a distant fourth.

Sanders had 26% of the vote and Buttigieg had 24% with more than 91 percent of precincts reporting. Klobuchar had 20%, Warren 9% and Biden 8%.

BIDEN LEAVES NEW HAMPSHIRE EARLY

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Biden, the former vice president who was once the front-runner in the Democratic race, limped to his second consecutive poor finish after placing fourth in Iowa. He is certain to face growing questions about his ability to consolidate moderate support against a surging Buttigieg and Klobuchar.

He left New Hampshire before the polls closed, heading to South Carolina where his campaign contends that support from black voters will help his chances.

"It ain't over, man. It's just getting started," an energetic Biden told supporters in South Carolina.

"We just heard from the first two of the 50 states," he said. "Where I come from, that's the opening bell, not the closing bell."

NEXT STOP NEVADA

Klobuchar's campaign said it was spending more than $1 million on ads in Nevada.

"We have beaten the odds every step of the way," Klobuchar told supporters in Concord. "Because of you, we are taking this campaign to Nevada. We are going to South Carolina. And we are taking this message of unity to the country."

Buttigieg, who would be the first openly gay U.S. president if elected, still faces questions about what polls show is his weakness with African-American voters, one of the most loyal and vital Democratic voting blocs.

He also decried the growing polarization of politics and the recent Democratic infighting.

"In this election season, we've been told by some that you must either be for revolution or you are for the status quo. But where does that leave the rest of us?" Buttigieg asked supporters in Nashua. "A politics of my way or the highway is a road to re-electing Donald ."

On the Republican side, easily won the state's presidential primary, defeating rival William Weld, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts.

(Reporting by John Whitesides, James Oliphant, Simon Lewis, Michael Martina and Amanda Becker in New Hampshire, writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Chizu Nomiyama)

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