MANCHESTER, New Hampshire — Moments after the polls closed, the race was already called.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won handily with more than 37 percent of the vote, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul came in a strong second, with 24 percent.
The New Hampshire primary is the nation’s first binding vote in the presidential race, and the northern electorate is proud of its status.
While the New Hampshire results continue to roll in, the focus has already shifted to the next contest. On January 21 the candidates will meet again in South Carolina, the first primary in the heart of the Republican base.
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Glowing with victory, Romney addressed crowds who chanted “Mitt! Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!” as the candidate delivered his speech. “Tonight we made history!” he said.
This is an important win for Romney. He’s the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire, putting him in a strong position going into South Carolina.
On the heels of his narrow victory in Iowa last week, he is starting to look unstoppable.
Still, the campaign was a cliffhanger up until the last minute.
Romney was widely heralded as the presumptive winner, but as recently as two days ago the majority of the electorate was still undecided. Early polling predicted that Romney would reap 44 percent of the vote, and his campaign worried about inflated expectations.
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The major fight was for second place. Former Utah governor John Huntsman had bypassed Iowa to stake his entire campaign on New Hampshire. His third-place showing will be enough to keep him in the race through South Carolina.
The spotlight will now turn to Paul, the 76-year-old congressman whose strong libertarian views had led many to dismiss his candidacy.
With 40 percent of precincts reporting, Paul was just 13 points behind Romney. This will give him a major boost for the coming contests.
Paul was his usual cantankerous self as he took his bows.
“I want to thank the Union Leader,” he said, referring to Manchester’s major newspaper. “For not endorsing me!” The Union Leader endorsed Newt Gingrich, who tied for fourth.
“I called Governor Romney to congratulate him for his clear-cut victory,” said Paul. “But we are nibbling at his heels.”
Paul’s libertarian views have made him a hit on college campuses, and have also struck a chord in New Hampshire, known for its flinty independence. But many wonder how much of a chance he has against President Barack Obama in a general election.
New Hampshire bills itself as “the king of retail politics” — the old-style process of pressing the flesh and kissing babies. Residents value the personal touch over television ads and national debates.
“I am voting for Romney,” said Donna Knapper, who heads the VFW’s Ladies Auxiliary in Rochester. “I met him personally and I liked the way he spoke. I sat down with him for half an hour. I think he is dedicated and committed, and I think he can beat Obama.”
That will be the primary criteria for many Republicans in the coming months. Romney has failed to generate a lot of enthusiasm. But his steady support is witness to the perception of many Republicans that he is the candidate who has the best chance of beating Obama in November.
Turnout in New Hampshire is likely to fall short of the record numbers seen in 2008, when 240,000 voters cast their ballots. The state has approximately 800,000 registered voters. With close to half of precincts reporting, just 98,000 votes were counted.
Another unusual factor in New Hampshire is the large number of “undeclared” voters — nearly 40 percent, according to state officials. “Undeclareds” can vote in either primary, and polling officials have said that this could well influence the results. Both Paul and Huntsman courted the undeclared voters, and their victory is almost certainly due to a strong showing by the independents.
Paul and Huntsman will be running hard to capitalize on their performance in New Hampshire.
Huntsman was doing well at 17 percent. Gingrich split fourth place with the hero of the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum, both showing 10 percent.
The Gingrich campaign center, just down the street from Huntsman, was quiet, and the mood was noticeably tense. There were gaily-colored signs proclaiming “Happy Newt Year” but campaign staff were not anxious to talk to the press.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, who decided to focus his dwindling campaign finances on the upcoming primary in South Carolina, received just 1 percent.