Manchester, N.H. — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney swept to victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, consolidating his front-runner status and leaving his conservative opposition in disarray.
Romney, 64, became the first nonincumbent to win both Iowa’s first-in-the-nation Republican caucuses and New Hampshire’s leadoff primary.
“Tonight, we made history,” he told a cheering throng packed into his Manchester headquarters. “Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow we go back to work.”
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Romney led the 30 candidates on the ballot with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Rep. Ron Paul at 23 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman at 17 percent.
The three candidates hoping to emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney finished far back in the field. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich each received 9 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who decided last week to bypass New Hampshire and concentrate on the Jan. 21 South Carolina showdown, placed sixth with 1 percent.
Romney’s support was stunning in its breadth. He split the independent vote with Paul and Huntsman, while winning among Republican voters by a ratio of 3 to 1 over his nearest rivals, Paul and Santorum, according to exit polls. The candidate accused of being a “Massachusetts moderate” by one opponent led the fragmented field among Tea Party loyalists, evangelical Christians and self-described “very conservative” voters.
Momentum for next week
Romney’s win is likely to provide the Boston venture capitalist and former Winter Olympics CEO with momentum going into the pivotal South Carolina primary, where Perry, Santorum and Gingrich are trying to unify social conservatives and slow the frontrunner’s march to the nomination.
Former New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a key Romney operative, said Tuesday’s win “will give us a lot of momentum and cause a lot of people in South Carolina to take us more seriously.”
Paul, whose message of personal liberty and a non-interventionist foreign policy attracted a large bloc of young voters and independents, tripled the 8 percent vote he received in the Granite State four years ago. In a victory speech of his own, the 76-year-old obstetrician-gynecologist mocked presidential also-rans who have labeled him “dangerous.”
“We are dangerous – to the status quo of this country,” an ebullient Paul said to enthusiastic backers who chanted, “President Paul, President Paul, President Paul.”
But the libertarian Texas lawmaker has largely depleted his campaign treasury and admitted Tuesday he will not be able to spend as heavily in South Carolina and Florida. After South Carolina, Paul is likely to focus on states holding presidential caucuses, where his national grassroots network gives him an advantage over other Romney rivals.
Distant third for Huntsman
Huntsman, who has spent much of the past six months in New Hampshire and held 170 events in the state, ended the night a distant third at 17 percent. The former U.S. ambassador to China now faces an uphill fight in South Carolina, with a modest grassroots organization and a depleted campaign treasury.
Huntsman campaign strategist John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative, said the Utah politician has enough momentum from New Hampshire to continue his quest for the White House.
“We’re going to be in South Carolina Wednesday,” he vowed. “We’re going to finish strong.”
The splintered field on the right could complicate efforts by social conservative leaders and Tea Party activists to halt Romney’s momentum. Santorum’s brief uptick after his second-place finish a week ago in Iowa quickly disappeared. And Gingrich’s sharp attacks on Romney as a conservative poseur did little to help the Georgia Republican win votes.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said the continuing division on the right makes Romney an overwhelming favorite for the nomination.
“Everyone is going to South Carolina, which is wonderful news for Romney,” Jillson said. “It means the anti-Romney vote is split across five other people again in South Carolina, and perhaps in future states. As long as he has four or five or six challengers, he’s going to continue to finish first.”
Perry, whose early front-runner status was wounded by poor debate performances and campaign gaffes, is staking his presidential prospects on South Carolina, a Southern state where his faith-and-freedom message should resonate with socially conservative, hawkish Republicans.
Romney had led in every New Hampshire poll for the past year and won easily despite a series of mistakes in the closing days of the campaign. Over the weekend, the millionaire corporate takeover specialist told an audience how he had feared receiving a “pink slip” from his employer earlier in his career. And Sunday, in a discussion of health care providers, he declared, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
The rest of the field, sensing a campaign-altering gaffe, denounced Romney’s choice of words.
But the late attacks on Romney appeared to have had little impact on the Massachusetts governor’s front-runner status in his neighboring state.
“It reminds me of the old Pat Benatar song, ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot,’ ” said Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom, “except that Mitt Romney absorbed their best shots and emerged stronger than ever.”
Note: 95% of precincts reporting.
Richard S. Dunham is the Houston Chronicle’s Washington bureau chief. Carla Marinucci is senior political writer for The San Francisco Chronicle. E-mail the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
This article appeared on page A – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle