DERRY, N.H. — New Hampshire Republicans elected a tea party figure as their leader and rejected the establishment-backed candidate, a sign that activists in this early voting presidential 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 first-time voters against White House veterans. 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-style 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."
Sununu and his allies said a tea party candidate could create a hostile environment for some candidates who don't subscribe to the movement's orthodoxy or who come from a moderate background.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who won a first term in November, urged the party to quickly move past the bruising contest.
"Moving forward, it will be critical for Republicans to stand together," she said. "While we made tremendous gains in 2010, we all know that more work remains. We move forward from today firm in our conservative principles and united as a party."
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," Buckley 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. Republicans 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 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 2012 primary. For an early gauge of what activists were thinking, ABC News and WMUR-TV conducted a state party-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, with 2008 vice presidential nominee former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at 7 percent.
U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina each earned 5 percent.
No one has declared their presidential campaign and none has put together the political network it would take to seek the nomination in New Hampshire.
In Iowa, which holds the earliest caucuses, Republicans have scheduled a straw poll for Aug. 13.
New Hampshire straw poll
ABC News and WMUR-TV conducted a state party-sanctioned straw poll for the 2012 presidential primary.
Mitt Romney, 35
Ron Paul, 11
Tim Pawlenty, 8
Sarah Palin, 7Comment on this story
Michele Bachmann, 5
Jim DeMint 5