Mitt Romney soared to a decisive victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, finishing far ahead of all of his Republican rivals and generating strong momentum going into the South Carolina primary January 21.
Romney, a former venture capitalist who billed himself as the leader who knows how the economy works and will take aggressive steps to fix it, finished with about 36 percent of the vote, according to projections by CNN and Fox News. Each network called the race minutes after the polls closed.
Coming after his narrow success in last week's Iowa caucuses, Romney has now won the first two contests in the GOP nominating process. He used his victory speech Tuesday night to attack President Obama, arguing that "the middle class has been crushed;" the national debt has burgeoned; unemployment is unacceptably high, and Americans feel that their opportunities are fading because of Obama's failed policies. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, condemned "the broken promises of the last three years" and said, "The president has run out of ideas. Now he's running out of excuses." He derided "the bitter politics of envy," and said Obama and even some of his Republican rivals had stooped to attacking the free-enterprise system, which he defended.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, riding a wave of intense support from young people, independents, and libertarians, seemed likely to finish second with 25 percent, according to early returns and projections by the TV networks. Former Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, who sold himself as a genial, moderate conservative, also scored well with independents and was tallying about 17 percent, according to the early returns and network projections.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were battling for fourth place at about 10 percent each. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, who didn't compete in New Hampshire, came in last with 1 percent.
Sixty percent of New Hampshire voters said the economy was the most important issue, which was the theme that Romney emphasized above all others; 45 percent said it was the deficit, according to exit polls.
Eleanor Evans, interviewed in the small town of Kingston in southern New Hamsphire, said she supported Romney because, "He's a businessman and a conservative." She wasn't swayed by charges that Romney is a flip-flopper. "They say that about everyone," Evans said. Leo Lemoine added: "I voted for Romney. I decided in the last couple of weeks. I just think about the jobs for the young kids coming out of school."
Voters who supported Paul, such as Andrea Veroneau, tended to express admiration for his consistency and strong conservative positions. Huntsman's backers, such as Paul Royal, liked his relative moderation.
Romney had been far ahead in the opinion surveys in New Hampshire for many weeks, and he delivered a strong plurality when the actual votes were counted Tuesday night.
But his opponents planted some seeds of doubt about him in the past few days by attacking his years as a partner in Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought, sold, and invested in various companies. Gingrich has made a particular point of condemning Romney and Bain as a corporate plunder who made millions by focusing on the bottom line and didn't care much about creating or preserving jobs for everyday Americans.
This issue didn't appear to take much of a toll on Romney in New Hampshire but the impact could be much severe down the line. Romney says his critics are actually attacking capitalism and the free-enterprise system, which he aggressively defends.
The South Carolina primary could be decisive. No Republican has gone on to win the GOP nomination without winning South Carolina since that state began holding an early primary in the 1970s.
A conservative state with a large evangelical population, South Carolina wouldn't seem to be a natural stronghold for Romney but he has been leading in the polls there, again because of his argument that he has the business experience and expertise to strengthen the economy.
Huntsman made New Hampshire his make-or-break state. He has been living there for months, and has spent most of his resources there, banking on the state's history of supporting insurgents and surprising the pundits and the political insiders. But his pitch as a moderate who preaches comity isn't expected to go over well in South Carolina, a conservative bastion in nearly every way.
Paul also has decided to focus on South Carolina, but will probably skip Florida, which holds its primary on January 31. Paul strategists argue that it will be more cost-effective and smart to focus on states with nominating caucuses, such as Nevada, where Paul's army of committed supporters can have the most impact, rather than Florida where vast sums of money are needed for TV ads and where the field is expected to be very fractured, with little chance for Paul to score a breakthrough.
Of the remaining candidates, Gingrich, Santorum and Perry have taken turns at the top of the polls in recent weeks but faded from contention. There is be little to suggest that any of them can make a comeback.
- See pictures of voters casting their ballots in New Hampshire
- Read the U.S. News debate: Will Mitt Romney Be the GOP Presidential Nominee?
- Vote for your pick for the 2012 GOP nomination.