New Hampshire Republicans on Saturday elected a tea party figure as their leader, rejecting the establishment-backed candidate, a sign that activists in this early voting presidential primary state have embraced the anti-government message that helped them make major gains in November's election.
Former gubernatorial candidate Jack Kimball edged businesswoman Juliana Bergeron in a race that pitted White House veterans against first-time voters. Kimball, who said he would "send Barack Obama packing" and elect a Republican governor in 2012, promised not to shy from a fight.
"We are in a war, and we are going to win it," Kimball said. "We are going to pull ourselves from the brink. We are going after the Democrats the whole time."
More than 400 members of the statewide committee voted while dozens of operatives watched from the sidelines to see how the tea party activists would influence the party. The outgoing chairman, John H. Sununu, a former chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, urged Republicans to support Bergeron and hold off an insurgent movement in the party.
"Incumbent on you is the responsibility -- not just of keeping this party together -- but because every four years, the world watches because we are the most significant component in picking the president," Sununu said.
"We as a party need to provide an environment that is comfortable for all candidates to come and participate. The worst thing for the New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary is for people to feel this is not a place where they want to participate."
New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley was blunt in his criticism. "Jack Kimball's election as chair completes the radical right-wing takeover of the Republican Party in the Granite State," he said.
After his victory, Kimball sought to calm fears that he would guide the state GOP as a tea party. "I am a Republican, a conservative Republican who happened to come out of the tea party. You'll find the Reagan values in this guy," he said.
He said the tea party movement emerged because of frustration with both parties. He said those new-to-politics voters should be brought into the fold, not mocked, especially given the GOP's successes during November's election when they won 124 new seats in the 400-seat state House. They also control 19 of the state Senate's 24 seats, as well as both the state's U.S. representatives.
"I feel I can be that bridge for the new activists and the old," he said.
Those activists will be crucial in the state's next big test: the February 2012 presidential primary. For an early gauge of what activists were thinking, ABC News and WMUR-TV conducted a state GOP-sanctioned straw poll that gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 35 percent support.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who like Romney previously ran for president, came in second place with 11 percent. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who visits the state this week, had 8 percent. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, got 7 percent.