Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the NewHampshire primary Tuesday night, adding to afirst-place finish in last week's Iowa caucusesand establishing himself as the man to beat forthe Republican presidential nomination.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul led former Utah Gov. JonHuntsman for second place, with Newt Gingrich andRick Santorum trailing.
Returns from the first 13 percent of the state'sprecincts showed Romney with 36 percent of thevote, followed by Paul with 24 percent andHuntsman with 18 percent.
Former House Speaker Gingrich and formerPennsylvania Sen. Santorum had 10 percent and 9percent respectively.
Romney battled not only his rivals but also highexpectations as the ballots were counted,particularly since his pursuers had virtuallyconceded New Hampshire and were already pointingto the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21 as theplace to block his rise.
Seeking to undercut Romney's victory, Gingrich andothers sere suggesting that anything below 40percent or so would indicate weakness by thenomination front-runner.
They didn't mention that Sen. John McCain'swinning percentage in the 2008 primary was 37percent.
Huntsman, in particular, staked his candidacy on astrong showing in New Hampshire. Santorum saidsecond place "would be a dream come true."
Not for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor,who swept into the state nearly a week ago afterwinning the Iowa caucuses by eight votes overSantorum. That result, coupled with NewHampshire's proximity to Massachusetts, causedPerry to take a pass on the state, and the othercontenders also all but conceded a Romney victoryon Tuesday.
About one-third of Republican voters interviewedas they left their polling places said the mostimportant factor in choosing a candidate wasfinding someone who could defeat President BarackObama in the fall -- a claim that Romney madeoften.
About one-quarter of those interviewed citedstrong moral character or experience as the mostimportant factor in selecting someone to support,followed by a candidate's true conservatism.
As was the case last week in the Iowa caucuses,the economy was the issue that mattered most.
In tiny Dixville Notch, the village thattraditionally votes at midnight. Romney andHuntsman each received two of the six votes. Onewent to Gingrich and the other to Paul. Huntsmansaid hopefully, "Dixville Notch might be aharbinger in this race."
A Romney victory would make him the firstRepublican to sweep the first two contests in acompetitive race since Iowa gained the lead-offspot in presidential campaigns in 1976.
Yet independents are permitted to vote in eitherparty's primary in New Hampshire, and the statehas a rich history of humbling favorites, front-runners and even an occasional incumbent.
The state's Republican voters embarrassedPresident George H.W. Bush in 1992, when he wonbut was held to 53 percent of the vote against PatBuchanan, running as an insurgent in difficulteconomic times. Buchanan, who never held publicoffice, won the primary four years later over Sen.Bob Dole of Kansas, who was the nominee in thefall.
In 2000, national front-runner George W. Bushrolled into the state after a convincing first-place finish in Iowa but wound up a distant secondbehind Sen. John McCain. Bush later won the GOPnomination and then the presidency.
Twelve Republican National Convention delegateswere at stake on Tuesday, out of 1,144 needed towin the nomination.
Obama was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary ofstate, predicted about 250,000 ballots would becast in the GOP race. If so, that would beslightly more than double the turnout last week inIowa's caucuses.
The state has about 232,000 registeredRepublicans, 223,000 Democrats and 313,000 voterswho are undeclared or independent.
In his first presidential run in 2008, Romneyfinished second in the state to McCain. This time,he campaigned with the Arizona senator'sendorsement, as well as backing from Sen. KellyAyotte and numerous other members of the state'sRepublican establishment.
As in Iowa, the economy in New Hampshire is inbetter shape than in much of the country.Unemployment in November was 5.2 percent, farbelow the national average of 8.6 percent.
Even so, the economy became the central issuehere. Romney committed a pair of unforced errorsin the campaign's final 48 hours, and the othercontenders sought to capitalize.
On Sunday, after a pair of weekend debates only 12hours apart, the millionaire former businessmansaid he understood the fear of being laid off."There were a couple of times when I was worried Iwas going to get pink-slipped," he said, althoughneither he nor his aides offered specifics.
And on Monday, in an appearance before the NashuaChamber of Commerce, Romney was discussing healthinsurance coverage when he said, "I like beingable to fire people who provide services to me. Ifsomeone doesn't give me the good service I need,I'm going to go get somebody else to provide thatservice to me."
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, saw an opening."Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoycreating jobs," he said.
Perry, campaigning in South Carolina, said, "Ihave no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried aboutpink slips -- whether he'd have enough of them tohand out."
And Gingrich said Bain Capital, the venturecapital firm Romney once headed, "apparentlylooted the companies, left people totallyunemployed and walked off with millions ofdollars."
Romney has made his business experience acornerstone of his presidential campaign, sayingthat Bain on balance created 100,000 jobs, and asa result, he understands how to help boostemployment.
He sought to shrug off the attacks, saying he hadexpected them from Obama in the fall, but Gingrichand others had decided to go first. "Things canalways be taken out of context," he said.
Already the campaign was growing more heated inSouth Carolina.
A committee created to help Gingrich said it wouldspend $3.4 million to purchase television adsattacking Romney.
A group formed to help Romney -- which ran ads inIowa that knocked Gingrich off-stride -- said itwould be on the air as well.