Vermont's Bernie Sanders, the national polling frontrunner, looked set for a convincing win over Pete Buttigieg

Manchester (United States) (AFP) - Bernie Sanders held a slim lead in New Hampshire’s high-stakes Democratic primary on Tuesday, leaving rivals including party stalwart Joe Biden in his wake as he staked his claim to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

Sanders, the flag-bearer for the party’s progressive wing, had 26.1 percent of votes with three-quarters of the polling stations reporting in the state, where he routed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“Sanders beats Trump! Sanders beats Trump!” cheered his supporters at his primary watch party in Manchester.

Indiana ex-mayor Pete Buttigieg looked set to finish in second place at 24.1 percent as he readied for the more difficult battlegrounds of Nevada and South Carolina, while fellow Midwestern moderate Amy Klobuchar maintained a late surge to place third on 20 percent.

Pat Provencher, 89, a Pete Buttigieg super fan, shows off her American Flag jacket covered in buttons at a watch party at Nashua Community College, New Hampshire on February 11, 2020

After months atop the pack, Biden had already conceded he expected to do badly in New Hampshire, as he did a week earlier in Iowa – and the former vice president’s worst fears were beginning to materialize as he languished in fifth with just 8.4 percent.

The performance will be a body blow to the 77-year-old Biden, who has failed to generate the fundraising numbers or the enthusiasm levels of his rivals for the top spot on the Democratic ticket.

White House hopefuls were seeking clarity in the Granite State after the first-in-the-nation Iowa count devolved into chaos, with Sanders and Buttigieg eventually emerging neck-and-neck.

Former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, pictured at a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Nashua, is expecting a strong bounce in New Hampshire

For tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, that meant facing reality and bowing out after they failed to make an impact on Tuesday.

“You know I am the math guy, and it is clear tonight from the numbers that we are not going to win this race,” Yang said.

- ‘Not the closing bell’ -

Senator Amy Klobuchar, pictured after a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire on February 10, 2020, has been rising in the polls

The 78-year-old Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, went into the race as the newly anointed national frontrunner and was expected to win New Hampshire.

Buttigieg’s camp will be happy with a solid result that could provide voters on the fence with much-needed reassurance after he won narrowly in Iowa.

The Afghanistan veteran is languishing at 10 percent in the latest national polls and has negligible support among African-Americans in upcoming battleground states with more diverse populations.

Pundits believe this vital constituency will start to take a serious look at Buttigieg if he racks up top-two finishes in the opening races.

After months atop the Democratic pack, Joe Biden finished below par in New Hampshire, as he did in Iowa

Klobuchar’s popularity in New Hampshire has surged since a strong debate on Friday, moving her ahead of liberal Elizabeth Warren (9.4 percent), whose performance in New Hampshire will do nothing to revitalize a wounded campaign.

“Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to as Pocahontas, is having a really bad night,” Trump tweeted with around half the count completed.

“I think she is sending signals that she wants out.”

Warren admitted to MSNBC the result was a disappointment but added that “98 percent of people still haven’t been heard from… this is going to be a long primary process.”

US presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren greets supporters during the New Hampshire Primary at the Amherst Elementary School in Nashua, New Hampshire on February 11, 2020

“The question for us Democrats is whether it will be a long, bitter rehash of the same old divides in our party, or whether we can find another way,” she said later.

Biden, apparently seeing the writing on the wall, had already canceled a primary-night party and was in South Carolina as the results came in.

“We just heard from the first two of 50 states. Two of them. Not all the nation, not half the nation, not a quarter of the nation,” he told supporters.

“Now, where I come from, that’s the opening bell – not the closing bell.”

- ‘Dramatic shift’ -

The day had begun under a light snowfall. Voters at a Boys and Girls Club in the state capital Concord received paper ballots and used either voting booths curtained by red, white and blue plastic or tabletop voting spots to make their choice.

US Democratic primaries and caucuses

Mike Schowalter, a 39-year-old conservative, said he voted for Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist who critics complain is proposing a health care overhaul and other sweeping ideas that are too expensive.

“It does seem kind of strange, but I do think a lot of stuff going on in our country right now is a bit broken,” Schowalter told AFP. “I think he’ll get us talking.”

Buoyed by his strong start, Sanders has emerged as the national Democratic frontrunner with 25 percent support, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll that described his surge as a “dramatic shift.”

Biden has skidded from 26 to 17 percent support since the end of January.

Significantly, the survey also showed billionaire Michael Bloomberg vaulting into third place on 15 percent – suggesting a possible upset when New York’s former mayor, who is skipping the first four nominating contests, throws himself fully into the race.

Competing for the support defecting from Biden, Bloomberg is focusing on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states vote – spending a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign.