MANCHESTER, N.H. -- A week after his whisker-thin Iowa victory failed to quiet doubts about his candidacy, Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary by a decisive margin tonight and vaulted closer to the Republican nomination as the race turns toward a tough, new proving ground: socially conservative South Carolina.
Romney was projected the winner by The Associated Press shortly after the final New Hampshire polling stations closed at 8 p.m. Ron Paul took second place, with Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Perry trailing, the AP said.
The crowd gathered at Romney’s victory party at Southern New Hampshire University erupted into cheers of “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” when a Fox News anchor announced on the screen that the network had called the race at 8 p.m.
In his victory speech to the cheering crowd, Romney turned his fire mainly on Democratic President Barack Obama, saying, “This president has run out of ideas; now he’s running out of excuses.”
He said Obama wants to “put free enterprise on trial. … I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we’re lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by resentment of success.”
“He apologizes for America, and I will never apologize for the greatest nation in the history of the earth,” Romney said.
With 92 percent of precincts reporting, Romney led with 39.3 percent of the votes, compared with 22.9 percent for Paul, 16.9 percent for Jon Huntsman, and 9.4 percent for Newt Gingrich. Rick Santorum also garnered 9.3 percent, while Rick Perry had less than 1 percent.
While Romney’s victory had been expected, it had not been clear who would be the strongest runners-up, potentially gaining more credibility heading into South Carolina.
Paul used his speech to supporters to reiterate campaign themes, including his call to dismantle the Federal Reserve system, to limit government, and for US troops to stop being the “policemen of the world.”
He said the role of government “should be very simple -- the protection of liberty.”
“We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight. … There is no doubt that this whole effort that we are involved in will not go unnoticed, let me tell you,” Paul said. “There’s no way they’re going to stop the momentum that we have started.”
Huntsman, the apparent third-place winnner, vowed in his speech to continue to South Carolina.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in the hunt,” he said. “I’d say third place is a ticket to ride.”
He argued that America was in danger of going to decline but had the ingredients for a renewal.
“All we need is a little bit of leadership and a plan,” he said.
“You know what I saw from 10,000 miles away, living in China?” said Huntsman who served as US ambassador to China. “I saw a nation with the greatest people on earth, a nation that is down for the moment … but a nation that is about to rise up again.”
Both Santorum and Gingrich also vowed to take their campaigns to South Carolina. Perry had not been campaigning in New Hampshire, choosing to campaign in South Carolina instead.
Romney’s victory, while not a surprise, culminated years of groundwork in a state that he lost four years ago to John McCain. Since that defeat, Romney methodically sought key endorsements in New Hampshire, winning them from nearly every major current and former Republican. He went to spaghetti dinners, held 24 town hall meetings, and blitzed the state on a bus tour called “Earn It” that was designed to counter any perception that the candidate was taking the state for granted. Campaign volunteers placed 500,000 phone calls, knocked on 75,000 doors, and distributed 35,000 yard signs.
With wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney becomes the first Republican, other than incumbent presidents, to win both early-voting states. He now carries significant momentum into South Carolina, where the primary on Jan. 21 is shaping up to be a brutal and perhaps final test of Romney’s ability to win over conservatives, Tea Party activists, and others who have to yet to embrace him.
For some of Romney’s rivals, the next 11 days could be their last opportunity to stop his march to the nomination. The South Carolina airwaves are already bristling with attack ads. A group backing Gingrich, flush with a $5 million donation from the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, is planning to blanket the state with emotionally charged ads that cast Romney as a “corporate raider” who slashed jobs as chief executive of Bain Capital. A group backing Romney is planning its own multimillion-dollar ad campaign.
The Democratic attack on Romney was long expected to focus in part on casting him as a ruthless profiteer while at Bain. But that argument’s emergence in a Republican primary, where candidates typically celebrate the free market as an unblemished engine of wealth creation, turned the race in a strange, new direction.
Gingrich led the charge, accusing Romney of “looting” companies while at Bain, and Perry and others followed suit. Just today in South Carolina, Perry called Romney and his Bain colleagues “vultures” who preyed on weak companies. “They swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton,” Perry said, according to CNN.
The criticism of Romney’s time in corporate America has outraged some in the party, who said Gingrich and others are helping Democrats advance their case against Romney. Chris Chocola, president of the conservative Club for Growth, has denounced Gingrich’s attacks as “highly disturbing” and “disgusting.”
Perry is among those who need a strong showing in South Carolina. After a disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa, he briefly considered withdrawing from the race, before deciding to skip New Hampshire, where he had almost no support, and head directly to South Carolina, where he hopes Tea Party activists and staunch conservatives will keep his presidential aspirations alive. For the last several days, he has had that state to himself, and has been trying to woo Tea Party activists and staunch conservatives by attacking Romney’s record at Bain, and casting himself as a champion of the Second Amendment. If he falters in the state, Perry, who was once a frontrunner with a formidable fundraising operation, will no doubt face calls to end his campaign, and allow fractured conservatives to coalesce around another candidate.
Huntsman, after promising a nationwide campaign when he entered the race last summer, narrowed his focus to New Hampshire, hoping that a strong showing in the state would vault him into South Carolina and Florida. He distinguished himself by campaigning across the state for months, by chastising those in his party who question the science of climate change and evolution, and by trying to strike a less partisan tone.
As governor of Utah, he had a record of slashing taxes and opposing abortion rights, but also took some moderate stances – such as supporting civil unions for same-sex couples – that helped endear him to independents and moderates. But his stint as ambassador to China in the Obama administration drove a wedge between him and many Republicans and opened him up to criticism from rivals who said the GOP should not nominate a candidate who worked for the very president that the party wants to oust.
Santorum, after a surprisingly close, second-place finish put him within eight votes of Romney in Iowa, came to New Hampshire with fresh attention from voters and the news media. But the socially conservative former senator found the state, with its libertarian leanings, to be more inhospitable than Iowa, where Christian conservatives wield more influence. Drawing on his Pennsylvania roots, Santorum cast himself as a champion of blue-collar workers who, he suggested, had been ignored by his wealthy rival, Romney. But Santorum encountered some hostile audiences in New Hampshire, where he was sharply challenged on his views on same-sex marriage.
Gingrich was dealt a serious blow after his deflating fourth-place finish in Iowa. Once a frontrunner brimming with confidence and a positive message focused on party unity, he has erupted in recent days into a candidate on the attack, savaging Romney as a heartless executive who slashed jobs at Bain and who governed as a “timid Massachusetts moderate” out of step with conservative values. Today, he unleashed a new ad in South Carolina that questions the sincerity of Romney’s opposition to abortion rights.
“What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his pro-abortion position to pro-life? He governed pro-abortion,” the announcer says, charging that Romney nominated “pro-abortion” judges” and appointed a Planned Parenthood official to a state board. “He can’t be trusted,” the announcer says.
In Iowa, Gingrich was blasted with $7 million in attack ads, including a sustained assault from a SuperPAC run by close associates of and former aides to Romney. Those ads skewered the former speaker for having “more baggage than the airlines,” and for being fined for ethics violations. He says his ads now are a response to those attacks.