Updated: 10:53 p.m.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney easily won the Republican presidential primary here this evening and immediately turned his attention to South Carolina.
In a fiery victory speech to a packed room of supporters on the campus of Southern New Hampshire University, Romney touched on conservative themes sure to resonate with Palmetto State Republicans, alternating between a hopeful vision of the future and blistering criticism of President Barack Obama. South Carolina Republicans go to the polls in just 11 days to decide what could be the crucial primary in the race for the 2012 GOP White House nomination.
“The president has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time,” Romney said.
With 71 percent of precincts reporting, Romney led the field with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) with 24 percent and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 17 percent. Paul and Huntsman were projected to finish second and third, respectively. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) were tied at 10 percent each, followed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 1 percent. Now the race shifts in full to South Carolina.
Romney needed a strong win in New Hampshire to shed lingering doubts about the strength of his candidacy heading into South Carolina, which features a more conservative electorate than the Granite State and could provide the former Massachusetts governor with a much tougher test. The Palmetto State could also breath new life into his competitors, particularly Santorum, who finished just eight votes behind Romney in the Iowa caucuses.
That fact did not appear lost on Romney this evening.
After thanking New Hampshire voters for their support, Romney launched into a sharply worded address that checked the boxes on the major issues of concern to South Carolina Republicans, many of whom identify with the tea party movement. One phrase Romney used to describe his plans to address the federal deficit could have been interpreted as an appeal to Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who is popular at home and influential in conservative circles nationwide.
Obama “raised the national debt. I will cut, cap and balance the budget,” Romney said. During last summer’s fight over the debt ceiling, DeMint and other tea party conservatives backed an alternative plan that they called “Cut, Cap, Balance.” DeMint endorsed Romney in 2008 but has said he will not endorse a candidate this time around. Meanwhile, Romney has been endorsed by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R).
A key to Romney’s New Hampshire victory was a well-oiled voter turnout operation that was unmatched by his opponents. Over the course of the Granite State campaign, Romney held 24 town hall meetings. According to his team, the campaign logged 500,000 volunteer phone calls into New Hampshire, knocked on 75,000 doors, distributed more than 35,000 yard signs and held 97 events attended by about 15,000 people.
Romney’s campaign was particularly pleased to come in first in Keene, home to many independent and moderate voters, and Concord, the state capital, where Huntsman was endorsed by some members of the City Council. The campaign also was pleased by its performance in the Republican strongholds of Derry and Meredith.
Jim Merrill, a top strategist for Romney in New Hampshire, described tonight’s victory as broad-based.
“We know how to organize, we know how to count votes and we know how to turn out those votes,” Merrill said in an interview after the race was called.
With a New Hampshire victory under his belt, Romney has become the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to win Iowa and New Hampshire — ironic for a politician who had previously been unable to close the deal at this level. In 2008, Romney came from in front to lose New Hampshire to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) despite the fact that he had recently served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts and owns a home in the state.
In the final 24 hours of this year’s campaign, Romney was accused by his Republican opponents of callously laying off employees during his career as a venture capitalist, while also fending off charges from them that he enjoys firing people in general. Those attacks came Monday after Romney used some unfortunate wording while telling a gathering of the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce that he supports policies that make it easier to change health insurance companies.
“I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them,” Romney said. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
The attacks failed to stall Romney’s big lead in the polls. But Romney noted the attacks in his victory speech. In fact, it was the only portion of his speech in which he mentioned his Republican opponents. In doing so, Romney lumped his GOP opponents in with Obama.
“President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” he said. “In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success.”
Suffolk University’s final two-day tracking poll, released today, had Romney well in front of his rivals with 37 percent. Paul was second in that survey at 18 percent; Huntsman was nipping at his heels with 16 percent. Santorum and Gingrich brought up the rear with 11 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Perry, who did not campaign in New Hampshire and went straight to South Carolina after the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, registered 1 percent.
Romney’s success was demonstrated in exit polling statistics reported by Fox News at 6 p.m. According to the network, Romney was winning among voters who decided late with 29 percent, a key metric given New Hampshire’s history of upsetting frontrunners who were leading in the polls heading into Election Day.
Romney also had a slim, though statistically insignificant, lead among independent voters, who can vote in Granite State primaries and whom the surging Huntsman heavily courted. In fact, the Fox News exit poll showed that independents constituted 44 percent of Tuesday’s electorate, and Romney garnered 30 percent of that vote, while Paul received 29 percent and Huntsman 27 percent.
Meanwhile, Fox News exit polling showed that 67 percent of voters were satisfied with the GOP candidate field, and Romney was winning that category as well. Romney also won among voters whose top priority was defeating Obama in November.