New Hampshire primary gives Mitt Romney a historic win-win

By winning the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney became the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary since 1980. Perhaps more important, Ron Paul's second-place finish kept a surging Jon Huntsman at bay. 

Elise Amendola/AP
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters at the his New Hampshire primary night victory party at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday.

Five years after launching his first bid for the presidency, Mitt Romney fulfilled a long-held dream Tuesday: victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary.

The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts won easily, solidifying his status as the odds-on favorite to win his party’s presidential nomination. With 91 percent of the vote in, Mr. Romney led with 39 percent, 16 points ahead of second-place finisher Ron Paul.

“Thank you, New Hampshire,” Romney said in declaring victory. “Tonight, we made history.”

The win follows Romney’s narrow victory a week ago in Iowa, making him the first Republican candidate not already president to win the first two nominating contests since the Iowa GOP caucuses became significant in 1980. Romney also was on track to beat the 37 percent won by the man who defeated him here four years ago, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the eventual GOP nominee.

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More important, Romney has considerable momentum heading into the South Carolina and Florida primaries as the best-funded, best-organized candidate in the Republican field.

“Overall, it was a good night for Romney,” says Chris Galdieri, a political scientist at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H. “He won by double digits, and Ron Paul came in second. Paul doesn’t threaten Romney the way a strong performance by [Jon] Huntsman could have.”

In the hotly contested battle for second place, Congressman Paul of Texas was ahead with 23 percent over former Governor Huntsman of Utah, who had 17 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were close in the battle for fourth, with Mr. Gingrich at 9.4 percent and Mr. Santorum at 9.3 percent.

Paul commands an intensely loyal following, as a libertarian firebrand and abortion foe, but analysts say there’s a ceiling to his support that limits his ability to win the nomination. Still, Paul was set to compete in South Carolina, then focus on early caucus states, which could win him delegates and influence at the Republican National Convention in August.

Huntsman surged in the final weeks of campaigning in New Hampshire, rising out of single digits and threatening Paul for second. Huntsman had skipped the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, staking his campaign on a solid performance in New Hampshire. Speaking to supporters after the returns were in, Huntsman asserted he had a “ticket to ride” into the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.

But realistically, analysts questioned how Huntsman’s thinly funded and organized campaign could mount a serious bid for the nomination. In addition, South Carolina Republicans, similar in profile to those in Iowa, could be tough for him, as they lean conservative and evangelical Christian. Huntsman has focused his appeal on the moderate wing of the party.

South Carolina’s conservative profile is a better fit for Santorum, who came within eight votes of winning Iowa. Santorum’s position as a staunch advocate opposing abortion and gay rights fits the electorate of the first Southern primary.

South Carolina also presents an interesting scenario for Gingrich. A super political-action committee supporting him, called Winning Our Future, has pledged to spend $3.4 million in South Carolina promoting an anti-Romney documentary called “When Mitt Romney Came to Town.”

The film focuses on Romney’s years as a venture capitalist at Bain Capital, and the people who lost their jobs as companies were closed and restructured. Once atop the polls in Iowa, Gingrich finished in fourth place there pledging to “tell the truth” – read: go negative – about Romney.

Romney leaves New Hampshire victorious but a bit bruised after several days of Bain-bashing, and populist attacks from some of the other Republican candidates over his business record. Romney has acknowledged having to let workers go but maintains that as a venture capitalist he helped create 100,000 jobs.

The other major candidate still in the GOP race, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, skipped New Hampshire and went straight to South Carolina after his fifth-place showing in Iowa. After the results were clear, he said New Hampshire showed that the race for a “conservative alternative” to Romney remains “wide open.”

“I believe being the only non-establishment outsider in the race, the proven fiscal and social conservative and proven job creator will win the day in South Carolina,” Governor Perry said in a statement.

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