NH speaks: It's Mitt by a mile
MANCHESTER -- It took him nearly six years and two attempts, but Mitt Romney on Tuesday won the strong support of New Hampshire Republican primary voters and became the clear front-runner for his party's presidential nomination as the battle now moves to South Carolina.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning maverick who campaigned hard across the state, was poised to easily win the battle for second place over the more moderate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
In winning the 2012 New Hampshire Primary, the former Massachusetts governor withstood a barrage of attacks on his record, his consistency and his overall toughness and mettle leveled by his Republican rivals. He was also attacked relentlessly by the national and state Democratic parties, which would prefer not to see him as President Barack Obama's opponent in the general election.
Major broadcast networks declared Romney the winner as soon as all polls closed at 8 p.m.
But will Romney's margin of victory be viewed as wide enough to portray him as a clear, strong front-runner?
It appeared that the answer is yes.
As returns poured in, Romney had 39 percent of the vote with nearly 90 percent of the voting precincts reporting.
A battle for second place was expected, with Huntsman riding a late mini-surge to battle Paul.
But Paul was at 23 percent and Huntsman at 17 percent, while former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum split the hard-line conservative vote, with 9 percent each.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who did not campaign in New Hampshire in recent months, was at 1 percent. Perry said the battle to become the conservative alternative to Romney was now "wide open."
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, won 82 percent of the vote against a collection of unknown candidates in the Democratic primary.
'Thank you, New Hampshire,' Romney told ecstatic supporters at Southern New Hampshire University. 'Tonight we made history.' He became the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary.
New Hampshire, he said, 'has always been a very special place for our family. The Granite State moment we just enjoyed is a moment we will remember forever.'
Romney immediately attacked Obama, saying that during his term, 'the middle class has been crushed,' and, 'Our debt is too high tand our opportunities are too few.'
Romney said Obama 'looks across America and says, 'It could be worse.'
'That is not what it means to be an American -- 'it could be worse,'' Romney said.
'Americans know our future is brighter than these trouble times. We still believe in the hope, promise and dream of America. We still believe in that shining city on a hill,' said Romney.
Romney said Obama 'has put free enterprise on trial, and in the last few days, we have seen desperate Republicans do the same,' which he said was not good for the Republican Party.
Obama, Romney said, 'wants to fundamentally transform America. We want to restore the values that made it great.'
He promised to repeal the Obama-signed health care program.
An exultant Pau sarcasticallyl thanked the New Hampshire Union Leader 'for not endorsing me," and said, "Freedom is popular."
He said Romney 'had a clear cut victory, but we're nibbling at his heels.
'We have had a victory for the cause of liberty. There is no doubt that this effort we are involved in will not go unnoticed.'
Paul said that with his strong showing in New Hampshire, 'There's no way they're going to stop the momentum we have started.
'I have to chuckle when they describe you and me as being dangerous,' he said, adding, 'We are dangerous to the status quo in the country.'
Huntsman told his supporters he is moving on to South Carolina, where Republicans will hold a "first-in-the-South" primary on Jan, 21, but said of New Hampshire, 'Ladies and gentlemen I love this state.
'We proved that this state wants its candidates to do it the old-fashioned way, person by person, vote by vote,' he said. 'My confidence in this nation was reborn by the people of New Hampshire.'
He said his finish proved that the Americans want the nation to unite.
'This is about economics and this is about education,' he said. 'If we don't get our act together at home, we will see the end of the Americn century by 2050 and we are not going to let that happen, are we?'
He also called for congressional term limits and a stop to the 'revolving door' that allows retired politicians to become lobbyists.
Santorum noted New Hampshire was in Romney's 'backyard,' and said he, too, is anxious to move on to South Carolina.
'We have an opportunity to be the true conservative in this race,' Santorum said
Gingrich, who was endorsed by the Union Leader and New Hampshire House speaker William O'Brien, told backers, 'You've been wonderful to us here and I'm asking each of you not to slow down.
'If we do not go the extra mile and offer a vision powerful enough to unify Americans and if we continue down the road that Obama has us on, there will be more years of decay, more years of falling behind, more years of weakness,' Gingrich said.
In 2008, Romney received 32 percent of the vote, losing by 5 percentage points to John McCain.
Romney supporter former Gov. John H. Sununu set high expectations for Romney this week by predicting that he would receive about 38 percent of the vote, the level George H.W. Bush received with Sununu's help in 1988, when Bush defeated Bob Dole by 10 percent age points. Romney met that bar.
But, regardless of how it's reported and analyzed by the national media, Romney made history as the first non-incumbent Republican to win the key first two contests in the nomination. His New Hampshire win came a week after he squeaked to an eight-vote victory over Santorum in the Iowa caucuses.
Throughout this long campaign, Romney has been criticized for changing his views on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights. He defended from unrelenting attacks by rivals the health care plan he signed into law as governor, dubbed 'Ronmeycare,' which mandated required many Bay State residents to purchase health insurance.
At the same time, he promised to do away with the national version of his plan _ so-called 'Obamacare.'
Throughout the campaign, Romney portrayed himself as an effective governor who worked with a heavily Democratic legislature and as a businessman who knows how to create jobs.
He gaffed when, on Monday, he said he likes 'to fire people.
'Although he was referring not to workers but to insurances companies that fail to provide cost-effective services, some of his rivals pounded, with Huntsman saying, 'Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs. It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America.'
Romney's experience as chief executive at Bain Capital came under attack in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign and will be a major issue going forward to South Carolina.
A political action committee supporting Gingrich, called 'Winning Our Future,' has cued up for release in the Palmetto State a 27-minute 'infomercial' that portrays Romney as a 'predatory corporate raider' who led the takeover and shutdown of companies, throwing people out of work.
But Romney and his campaign organization, learning his lesson after his loss to McCain in 2008, built a grassroots organization that turned out his vote. He won big name endorsement after big name endorsement, but more important on election day was the get-out-the-vote ground game.
'Obviously, losing will do that to you,' said Romney adviser Tom Rath, a Concord attorney. 'The toughest thing about losing is coming back. Sometimes people need to see you get knocked down and get back up again. They need to see if someone has the ability to take a punch.'
Sununu, said, 'Retail still works. One of the most important things he did was to be in New Hampshire a lot, not only in the last couple of months, but in the last couple of years.'
Sununu said Romney and his organization helped local GOP candidates not only with financial contributions, but also by personally campaigning for them.
'In the last two months he took nothing for granted," Sununu said. "He was here constantly and went all the way up to Berlin and did door-to-door. He went to all corners of the state and walked the streets and shook hands.'
Sununu said that 'some of the candidates that may not be doing so well failed to understand that you need to do retail. With all due respect to my dear friend (Union Leader Publisher) Joseph McQuaid, I think Newt Gingrich owes him an apology for failing to campaign retail in New Hampshire and take advantage of the gift of an endorsement that the Union Leader, an extremely powerful media outlet in New Hampshire, gave him. He essentially dissed New Hampshire and today New Hampshire dissed him.'
Sununu said Huntsman went to the other extreme.
'If you spend six months in one state, if you want to run in all 50 states, it's going to take 25 years,' he said.
Objective analyst said that Romney ran a good campaign, but not a great one, but he benefited by the poor campaigns run by his competitors.
'The other candidates have been inept in their attacks,' said University of New Hampshire political science professor Andrew Smith. 'The worst attack Romney suffered was the one he inflicted on himself (on Monday) when he said he liked firing people.'
Added GOP strategist and former McCain adviser Michael Dennehy: 'Every candidate had an opportunity to knock Mitt Romney down and some didn't do it.'
Dennehy said Huntsman was also helped by 'the lack of a strong campaign' by Gingrich and Santorum.