Mitt Romney stormed out of New Hampshire Wednesday with a historic achievement under his belt, having scored back-to-back wins in the first two nominating contests, and vowing to take that momentum into South Carolina.
The former Massachusetts governor was able to pull off a commanding victory in the New Hampshire primary, winning with 39 percent of the vote with 95 percent of precincts reporting.
Up next, South Carolina. The state is not the friendliest of territory for the candidate Newt Gingrich has branded as a “Massachusetts moderate.” Polls show Romney holding a modest lead in South Carolina, but Gingrich and Rick Santorum also are polling strong. However, Romney is rallying supporters on a message of creating opportunity and shaking the nation out of the doldrums represented, he claims, by the current president.
To that end, Romney scolded his opponents in New Hampshire for criticizing his record at investment firm Bain Capital over the last few days. He accused them of reading right out of the Democratic playbook.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial, and the last few days we've seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," Romney said at his victory party in Manchester. "This is such a mistake for our party."
Romney said the country "already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy."
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His New Hampshire performance puts Romney's campaign in a strong position going into South Carolina, the next primary on the calendar and one that historically has been key to the GOP presidential nomination. But Romney still has a fight on his hands, as the five other candidates vowed to press on and meet him in the Palmetto State.
Romney will have to cope with a pro-Gingrich PAC that is expected to air clips of a brutal documentary about his time at Bain. Gingrich also has a new ad in the state that portrays Romney as a flip-flopper on abortion.
In New Hampshire, Ron Paul finished in second with 23 percent and Jon Huntsman finished in third with 17 percent. Gingrich and Santorum essentially tied for fourth, with both candidates pulling in 9 percent of the vote. Rick Perry finished in sixth place with 1 percent.
Romney's victory was apparent almost from the moment polls closed on Tuesday. The frontrunning candidate addressed a jubilant and rowdy crowd in Manchester. The audience frequently broke out into cheers and chants of "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!" as the candidate vowed to take the fight into South Carolina, whose contest is Saturday, Jan. 21.
"Tonight, we made history," Romney said. "Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we go back to work."
Keeping his eye on President Obama, Romney described the incumbent as a "failed" leader who did not live up to the "lofty promises" made on the New Hampshire stage just four years ago.
"The president has run out of ideas, now he's run out of excuses," Romney said. He urged South Carolina to "make 2012 the year he runs out of time."
Expectations had been raised to unnerving levels for the former Massachusetts governor in New Hampshire. The candidate won the leadoff Iowa caucuses by just eight votes.
A back-to-back win in New Hampshire is a historic achievement, but his competitors tried to raise the bar to towering heights for Romney ahead of Tuesday's vote.For instance, Gingrich had suggested Romney would need to win with 50 percent of the vote.
As polls persistently showed Romney dominating in the New Hampshire contest, the primary over the last few months evolved into a hard-fought race among his competitors for second place. Paul, who placed third in Iowa, claimed that prize on Tuesday night.
Paul frequently has been dismissed by some of his opponents as an arch-liberal on foreign policy whose views on shrinking the country's global military footprint are dangerous for America. Paul dismissed that charge, but agreed at his post-election celebration Tuesday that "we are dangerous to the status quo."
Touching on his trademark issues, the Texas congressman went on to trumpet the virtues of "sound money" and "personal liberty" and to rail against the Afghanistan war.
Paul said Romney had a "clear-cut victory" in New Hampshire, but added: "We're nibbling at his heels."
Huntsman, meanwhile, tried to rally supporters after his third-place finish. The former Utah governor had staked his campaign on New Hampshire, ignoring the Iowa caucuses in favor of a wall-to-wall push for Granite State votes. Though he is polling poorly in South Carolina, Huntsman said Tuesday he's "on the hunt."
"I think third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen," Huntsman said. "Hello, South Carolina."
Gingrich's camp announced early Wednesday that the candidate will deliver a "major" speech they described as "populist" at 9:00 a.m.
"Bottom line is you’re going to see the most authentic candidate who has run for president, who is not worried about what the consequences will be, put forth the truth as people see it in their lives every day,” spokesman R.C. Hammond told members of the press aboard the midnight charter leaving Manchester.
Earlier, Gingrich said his campaign is going on to South Carolina, arguing that he will take to that contest a "campaign for jobs and economic growth."
"This is step two of a long process," Gingrich said.
Santorum, who placed second in Iowa after surging from the back of the pack, said Tuesday night that "we have a campaign that has a message and a messenger that can deliver what we need, which is first and foremost, to defeat Barack Obama."
Perry placed fifth in the Iowa caucuses and has struggled to recapture the momentum his campaign boasted after his entrance into the race over the summer. However, his campaign on Tuesday set its sights on the next primary. He told Fox News his message will "resonate" in South Carolina.
Exit polling Tuesday offered a glimpse into voters' mind set. The data showed independents in particular were sharply divided over their choice for the Republican presidential nominee.
The polling showed undeclared voters made up a significant 44 percent of voters in the Granite State on Tuesday, nearly twice the number of independents that showed up in Iowa last week. In that group, 30 percent said they were supporting Romney, while 29 percent were supporting Paul and 27 percent were supporting Huntsman.
Among late deciders, the line-up was slightly different. The exit polls showed 29 percent breaking for Romney, while 24 percent were backing Huntsman and 20 percent were backing Santorum. Romney also led among those who think the most important quality in a candidate is the ability to beat Obama.