Mitt Romney rolled to a convincing victory in the New Hampshire primary, taking a broad stride toward capturing the GOP presidential nomination as the contest heads south for a pair of potentially make-or-break contests.
The win Tuesday gave Romney a one-two sweep in the leadoff voting of the 2012 campaign, a first for any Republican apart from a sitting president, as the race moved to South Carolina and Florida.
The conservative candidates who stand the best chance to stop him there — former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — were trailing far back and appeared unlikely to get a significant lift from their performances here.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was a solid second, but will have difficulty expanding on that showing in states that are less conducive to his libertarian views on social issues and foreign policy.
Jon Huntsman Jr. was a weak third, with barely half of Romney’s share of the vote. The former Utah governor, who concentrated almost his entire campaign in this state, insisted that he would move on.
Romney, who lost the state four years ago, sought to impart an air of inevitability to his candidacy with a celebratory speech Tuesday night that focused more on the fall election.
Speaking before a boisterous crowd of supporters in Manchester less than half an hour after the polls closed, the former Massachusetts governor charged that President Obama “wants to put free enterprise on trial.” But he also took a hard slap at what he termed “desperate” Republican rivals who have stepped up their attacks on his record in private business — a group that includes Perry, Gingrich and Huntsman.
“This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation,” Romney continued. “The country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy.”
Romney, who flies Wednesday to South Carolina, spoke directly to voters in that state, urging them to make 2012 the year that Obama’s presidency “runs out of time.”
Interviews of voters leaving their polling places showed a broad, sweeping triumph for the GOP front-runner. He carried most age, income and demographic groups as well as voters across almost the entire political and ideological spectra, including conservative tea party supporters. Among self-identified independents, however, Paul won a plurality.
Romney starts out leading in South Carolina, but that challenge promises to be much more formidable than New Hampshire, which was the former Massachusetts governor’s to lose from the start. Unlike Iowa, where leaders came and went atop the polls, no survey ever showed Romney with less than a sizable double-digit New Hampshire lead.
In South Carolina, however, Romney won’t have what amounted to a home-field advantage — he is the sixth Massachusetts presidential hopeful to win the neighboring Granite State — and he will face a much different electorate in the first Southern primary next week.
South Carolina has a large and politically important bloc of evangelical voters. Romney will face resistance among some of those Christian conservatives who are suspicious if not downright hostile toward his Mormon faith. In New Hampshire, just 14% of those who voted Tuesday said being a “true conservative” was the most important thing to them, trailing far behind the economic concerns cited by 6 in 10 voters, according to election-day interviews by the TV networks.
Romney is also facing a more assertive pack of runners-up.
After largely fighting among themselves for the last several months, they took after Romney in New Hampshire with sudden ferocity, ganging up on him in a Sunday debate and pounding him since then over his work at Bain Capital, the private investment firm he co-founded and the source of his great personal wealth.
While he cites his business background as a virtue, especially in contrast to the extensive Washington resumes of most of his rivals, Romney’s opponents have depicted him as a heartless, job-slashing corporate raider.
He handed them a cudgel while campaigning Monday with a remark wrenched from its original context: “I like to be able to fire people.” Although Romney made the comment in regard to healthcare and holding insurance companies accountable, his rivals seized on it as evidence of his callousness.
Still, Romney moves ahead with many advantages, not least a big edge in money and campaign organization, which becomes increasingly important as the election shifts from statewide races in Iowa and New Hampshire to a series of big-state contests across the country.
Victories in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida 10 days later could all but ensure that Romney will capture the nomination, and sooner rather than later.
Part of his strength is derived from the weakness of the opposition.
Each of his rivals holds particular appeal to segments of the Republican base — Paul with independents, Santorum and Perry with social conservatives, and Gingrich with voters seeking intellectual heft and a long-range vision. None, however, offer a complete package, and that has boosted Romney, who enjoys the steady support of at least a quarter of the electorate almost everywhere.
He could also benefit, as he did in last week’s squeaker win in Iowa, if evangelicals and tea party acolytes split their votes among several contenders on the right, allowing Romney to prevail over a crowded field.
Immediately after Sunday’s debate Perry retreated to South Carolina, where he has been pounding Romney on his performance at Bain. Paul, a Houston-area congressman, will compete there as well, but has already said he won’t make a major effort in Florida, which will hold the first big-state primary at the end of the month.
Huntsman has also set his sights on South Carolina, but he has considerable ground to make up. Although he invested early, he has spent little time there lately and his relatively centrist positions are likely to play less well than they did in more moderate New Hampshire, where he carried the vote of Democrats who crossed over Tuesday. Florida would demand a heavy investment in advertising dollars just for Huntsman to become better known.
“I’d say third place is a ticket to ride,” Huntsman told supporters. “Hello, South Carolina!”
Four years ago, another moderate Republican, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani tried a similar strategy, skipping Iowa and making a last stand in Florida. He finished a weak third and quit the campaign the next day.