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BEDFORD, N.H. - Mitt Romney again fell short of the gold medal as Sen. John McCain mounted a comeback here to take the nation's first primary election on the Republican side.

Once written off, McCain surged to overcome Romney's lead in the state where both candidates brutally fought for votes. McCain's victory puts him on track for future wins and could, according to some observers, be a crippling setback to Romney's White House hopes.

While acknowledging he is past the age where he can claim the nickname "kid," McCain said, "Tonight we sure showed them what a comeback looks like." A crowd of roaring supporters replied by chanting "Mac is Back."

"When the pundits declared us finished I told them I'm going to New Hampshire where the voters don't let you make their decision for them," McCain added.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who backs McCain, offered his own congratulations to McCain for a "hard-fought campaign, a well-deserved victory and a Lazarus-like recovery."

Romney's team downplayed the loss and the former Massachusetts governor forecasted later victories would still bring him the GOP nomination.

"It's time to send somebody to Washington who will actually get the job done," Romney told an enthusiastic crowd that began chanting his name in rapid succession. "You have to have somebody from outside Washington who has proven that he can get the job done in one setting after another," said Romney. "I'll make sure that America is, as it has always been, the hope of the Earth."

The successful business executive who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City heralded another "silver medal" finish.

With more than 91 percent of the ballots counted, Mike Huckabee, who finished first among Republicans in the Iowa caucuses, finished a distant third. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in fourth place, followed by Ron Paul, with Fred Thompson bringing up the rear.

After back-to-back second-place showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney's campaign will look to Michigan next week for a much-needed victory. But the Romney momentum likely will be stunted, observers say.

"It'll be much more difficult to come back from two defeats in two states he should have won by any measure, according to earlier polls," says Costos Panagopoulos, director of the Fordham College Center for Electoral Politics and Democracy in New York City.

Romney needs a win to validate his campaign efforts - his huge on-the-ground structure, his millions spent in ads - and the victory in Wyoming won't cut it, Panagopoulos says.

"It really didn't do very much for his campaign. . . . Wyoming does not have bellwether status."

The loss will make it harder to raise money and attract attention, Panagopoulos says. "It makes an uphill battle even steeper," he said.

Second place might not be good enough in the eyes of the news media, either, and Romney could be painted as on the way out, says Rich Hanley, director of graduate journalism programs at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

"The narrative constructed by the media will be DOA," Hanley says, using the acronym for Dead on Arrival. Reporters will say that, "If he can't win in the state next to the one he won as governor, it will be an obituary for his campaign. The media will be spinning an obituary."

The story line, he says, will be McCain on the rise and Romney on the decline.

Kirk Jowers, a Romney supporter and friend and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, says the loss puts a lot of pressure on the campaign to take Michigan's primary next week.

But, he adds, "On the positive side, Romney has the best organization throughout the states. He has the most money and the most comprehensive battle plan to win. His timetable is longer than any other candidate."

While Huckabee staked his campaign on the Iowa win, and McCain has banked on his efforts in New Hampshire, Romney has planned a several state strategy and is competitive in the rest of the early states, Jowers says.

"Romney is the one candidate who has not put all of his chips on one state," Jowers said. The fact he is willing to compete in every state makes him far less vulnerable than the media would like to portray."

Romney was looking to boost his coffers with a victory in one of the early states, even planning a national call-a-thon fundraiser in Boston the day after New Hampshire's primary. Volunteers, though, will still be dialing their friends and acquaintances for dollars.