MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney won a decisive victory Tuesday in New Hampshire’s Republican primary, scoring a solid triumph that firmly establishes him as the favorite to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, became the first Republican non-incumbent presidential candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire’s early contests. That should give him significant momentum as the campaign turns south, with the next contest on Jan. 21 in South Carolina.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who drew the campaign’s most energetic crowds, finished second in the Republicans’ first secret ballot test, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa’s caucuses last week to campaign here, was third.
With 51 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 38 percent of the vote. Paul had 23 percent and Huntsman had 17 percent.
Trailing far behind were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, each with 10 percent; Santorum could not sustain his momentum after finishing only eight votes behind Romney in Iowa.
Exit polls said Romney was slightly ahead of Paul among independents, who make up more than 40 percent of the state’s registered voters. Huntsman, who had counted on that support, trailed among them.
Romney claimed victory before 300 cheering supporters at Southern New Hampshire University, and used his speech to draw sharp contrasts with President Barack Obama.
“The president has run out of ideas,” Romney said. “Now, he’s running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”
Later, a broadly smiling Paul vowed to keep up his challenge to the status quo.
“I called Gov. Romney ... and congratulated him,” Paul said.
“He certainly had a clear-cut victory. But we’re nibbling at his heels,” he said, as a boisterous crowd chanted, “President Paul, President Paul.”
“We had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight,” he said. “The intellectual revolution that is going on now to restore liberty in this country is well on its way and there is no way they are going to stop the momentum we started.”
For his part, Huntsman declared: “Ladies and gentlemen -- I think we’re in
the hunt. ... I’d say third place is a ticket to ride. ... Hello South Carolina!”
The candidates now head for South Carolina, where they’ll join Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire and is already campaigning hard in the Palmetto State.
Romney will face an ongoing withering attack. On Tuesday, Perry joined what’s become a chorus of Romney rivals questioning his work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm he co-founded, which invests money to take over troubled companies and try to restore them to profitability.
Perry said companies like Bain are “vultures,” while Gingrich supporters released a 28-minute video attacking Romney as an insensitive corporate raider responsible for thousands of layoffs.
In fact, some Bain takeover targets became successful, while others failed. Romney says that’s simply capitalism, that Bain was more successful than not, and that its acquired companies created more jobs than they lost. There is no authoritative public record. As a private company, Bain isn’t required to open its books.
Polls show Romney ahead in South Carolina, thanks to the fractured field splitting the conservative vote.
Neither Huntsman, who is not seen as a conservative favorite, nor Paul, who is regarded by many conservatives as too extreme on foreign policy, are seen as likely victors there.
But there is an opening for someone to mount a strong challenge to Romney in the South’s first Republican contest, especially if conservatives rally behind one alternative to the front-runner.
“Romney’s support is going to be soft,” said Karen Kedrowski, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Perry kept up the heat Tuesday.
Campaigning in Sun City, S.C., he compared Romney and Bain Capital to “vultures” that strip companies and leave workers unemployed.
“They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for a company to get sick. And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, and they leave the skeleton,” Perry said.
Romney’s campaign quickly fired back.
“It is no surprise that, having spent nearly his whole life in government, Gov. Perry has resorted to desperate attacks on a subject he doesn’t understand,” said spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
Romney sustained strength in New Hampshire despite the assaults he endured the past few days. Voters routinely said that while they were not enthusiastic about him, they saw him as the candidate most able to beat President Barack Obama. And they often noted that they were familiar with him.
“Romney was everybody’s second choice,” said Doug Butler, a Francestown retiree.
Few seemed to have an easy first choice. Exit polls showed that 27 percent of New Hampshire voters made up their minds in the last few days, with 19 percent waiting until Tuesday.
“I don’t believe Romney is conservative. But I want someone who can beat Obama,” said Bob Valiant, a Chester computer analyst.