Mitt Romney handily won the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary early Wednesday, a major step toward cementing his position as the party’s choice to run against President Barack Obama in November.
With a sizable win in New Hampshire on the heels of his narrow victory last week in the Iowa caucuses, Romney has strong momentum going into the crucial -- and likely more difficult -- South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, according to The Associated Press.
Returns from 52 percent of the state’s precincts showed Romney with 37 percent of the vote. His victory was expected; Romney is the former governor of the neighboring state of Massachusetts, has a vacation home in New Hampshire and is a frequent visitor to the state.
With little hope of winning, his opponents were vying for a strong second-place finish. But the vote left the field scrambled, with no candidate emerging as the true conservative rival to Romney.
Texas congressman Ron Paul, with 23 percent, trailed Romney, with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman in third place with 17 percent. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum both had 10 percent.
Paul is considered a longshot to overtake Romney. He has a loyal core of supporters drawn to his libertarian, small-government message, but his calls for military cuts, withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and legalizing drugs puts him at odds with many Republicans.
“We’re nibbling at his heels!” Paul told a rowdy crowd of supporters, who chanted “President Paul!”
“We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight,” he said, according to AFP.
Huntsman, Obama’s first ambassador to China, skipped Iowa and has campaigned in New Hampshire more than any other candidate. Widely seen as the least conservative of the candidates, he is at the bottom of national polls of Republican voters.
While Huntsman said his third-place finish gave him “a ticket to ride” to South Carolina, it is difficult to see how he could prevail in the race, although he could siphon some moderate Republican votes from Romney.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in the hunt!” Huntsman said at a rally. “I’d say third place is a ticket to ride!”
Santorum, who draws support from social conservatives, failed to build on his near-victory in Iowa, where he fell just eight votes short of Romney.
Gingrich also did not rebound in New Hampshire after his once-soaring candidacy plummeted in Iowa, where he finished fourth after being targeted by a barrage of negative television ads by Romney supporters.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry was also on the ballot, but effectively conceded New Hampshire. He considered quitting the race after finishing fifth in Iowa, but hopes to revive his candidacy in South Carolina. Santorum and Gingrich also hope to find more fertile territory in South Carolina, the first southern state to hold a primary.
But the three candidates could end up again dividing the conservative vote as they did in Iowa, giving Romney a path to another win in a state where he might otherwise have struggled.
Despite his two victories and support from the Republican establishment, Romney has struggled to get a majority of Republicans to rally behind his candidacy. He has consistently polled under 30 percent in national surveys. Some Republicans have questioned his conservative credentials given his past support for abortion and gay rights and are uneasy with his Mormon faith.
Republicans see a strong opportunity to defeat Obama, who has had to deal with stubbornly high unemployment since taking office in 2009. Romney has said his business experience heading a venture capital firm gives him the experience to turn around the U.S. economy.
“Tonight we celebrate,” Romney told his supporters. “Tomorrow we go back to work.”
Romney looked past his rivals to set his sights squarely on Obama.
“The president has run out of ideas,” he said. “And now he’s running out of excuses.”
“Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense,” said Romney, according to AFP.
Romney has insisted that his private sector triumphs make him the best person to take on Obama, whose reelection bid is weighed down by the sagging U.S. economy and high unemployment.
Obama “wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation,” he declared.
“This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success,” said Romney.
Romney’s rivals have cast him as a millionaire who is out-of-touch with middle-class Americans and whose business experience has been more about cutting jobs than creating them.
Gingrich said Romney’s former firm, Bain Capital, “apparently looted the companies, left people totally unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars.”
Romney did not help himself with recent gaffes. On Sunday, he made the unlikely comment that he understood the fear of being laid off. “There were a couple of times when I was worried I was going to get pink-slipped,” he said, although neither he nor his aides offered specifics.
And on Monday, while discussing health insurance coverage, he said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I’m going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me.”
None of that impeded Romney in New Hampshire. Romney’s victory there made him the first Republican to sweep the first two contests in a competitive race since Iowa gained the leadoff spot in presidential campaigns in 1976.
South Carolina, with a large bloc of evangelical Christians, will likely be more difficult for Romney. He finished fourth there in 2008. Unemployment is also a bigger issue in South Carolina than it had been in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Still, a poll last week showed Romney leading. A win in South Carolina, following victories in Iowa and, presumably, New Hampshire, would make Romney very difficult to stop.
The Republican nominee will ultimately be determined by a state-by-state tally of delegates at the Republican National Convention in August. Twelve delegates were at stake on Tuesday in New Hampshire, out of 1,144 needed to win the nomination.
Obama ran unopposed and won the Democratic primary.