MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, giving the former Massachusetts governor a sweep of the first two primary contests.
The victories give him strong momentum heading into South Carolina, the next state to hold a primary. A victory there would make it hard on his rivals to continue their presidential campaigns.
"Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times," Romney told his supporters, as applause and cheers interrupted him. "The president has run out of ideas. Now he's running out of excuses. And tonight, we're asking the good people of South Carolina to join the good citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time."
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 39 percent of the vote. Ron Paul, who came in second, was 16 points behind with 23 percent. Jon Huntsman, who staked his campaign on doing well in New Hampshire, was in third place with 17 percent. Newt Gingrich was fourth and Rick Santorum was fifth. The AP projects Romney will gain seven delegates, Paul three and Huntsman two.
By topping his nearest competitor by more than 15 points, Romney nullified the argument his opponents could have made had he eked out a victory by a much smaller margin: that by failing to meet high expectations, even a win was really a loss.
Romney was expected to win the first-in-the-nation primary and the race was called for him seconds after polls closed at 8 p.m., suggesting that a last-minute flurry of rancorous attacks did little to knock him down from his longstanding position of dominance in the race for the GOP nomination.
His strong standing left his rivals battling it out for second place.
Their continuing tangle played directly into Romney’s hands, splitting his opposition up into more easily conquered segments and making his victory appear even bigger in comparison. Even Paul’s second-place finish was a boon to Romney, whose campaign has made it clear they would like nothing better than for the libertarian congressman to be their primary adversary.
But Romney did not emerge from New Hampshire completely unscathed, particularly when it comes to his general-election prospects if he wins the nomination. The final days in the Granite State saw Republicans parroting Democratic talking points about Romney being an emissary for the most privileged in society, which then gave Democrats an opportunity to claim that even Republicans are wary of the former governor’s record.
Democrats were quick to seize on CNN exit polls showing that Romney performed almost twice as well with voters who earn more than $200,000 annually than he did with those making less than $30,000 a year. Paul did best among lower-income voters.
"He did very poorly among independents, and the area where he seemed to glow was among the affluent," Democratic National Committee spokesman Michael Czin told The Hill. "It's a problematic trajectory for Romney."
Romney showed substantial gains over his results in the 2008 contest for the White House, when he came in second in New Hampshire to Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Powell ended up on losing side of GOP fight A pandemic of hyper-hypocrisy is infecting American politics Virginia race looms as dark cloud over Biden's agenda MORE (Ariz.), the eventual GOP nominee. In Amherst, Romney locked up 47 percent of the vote — a 12-point gain over 2008. In Londonberry, where Romney won 39 percent four years ago, he took 46 percent on Tuesday.
In other areas, he won by much smaller margins. His 27 percent in Haverhill put him just 3 points ahead of Paul.
"Tonight, we made history," Romney said on stage with his wife, Ann, and their five sons. "Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we go back to work."
His victory in New Hampshire came one week after he narrowly won the Iowa caucuses by eight votes, making him the first non-incumbent to win both states since the two took their place at the front of the primary calendar almost four decades ago.
Paul meanwhile said his second place finish means he's the only candidate who can challenge Romney.
"We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight," Paul told supporters, who cheered him on at a rowdy celebration as networks projected he'd be the runner-up in the New Hampshire primary.
Paul finished third in the Iowa caucuses — the best results in the first two contests for anyone but Romney.
Huntsman says he’s staying in the GOP presidential race despite finishing third in New Hampshire, a state where he has staked much of his time and campaign resources.
"I'd say third place is a ticket to ride. On to South Carolina," he told supporters at his election-night party.
Questions have been raised about the former Utah governor's viability, but his campaign insists he has the momentum, money and message to stay in the race.
Gingrich also said his campaign would continue and vowed that he will "shock the country."
"This campaign is going to go on to South Carolina," Gingrich told supporters.
The former House Speaker said earlier in the day his "real goal" was to hurt Romney in New Hampshire. That didn't happen, but Gingrich will likely seek to achieve that goal in South Carolina. Gingrich hit Romney hard during Sunday's debate in Concord, N.H., and with two debates scheduled in South Carolina next week, he has plenty of opportunity to continue his attack dog role.
Santorum downplayed the state's impact on his presidential campaign while promising to continue on to South Carolina.
The former Pennsylvania senator brushed off his second-tier finish in his speech, reminding the crowd he only had about a week to build a campaign organization in the state. Santorum focused almost exclusively on Iowa up until those caucuses on Jan. 3, where he had a surprise surge to second place.
Rick Perry, who left New Hampshire after last weekend's debates, said the results showed that Republican voters were still searching for someone other than Romney.
"Tonight's results in New Hampshire show the race for 'conservative alternative' to Mitt Romney remains wide open," Perry said in a statement. "I skipped New Hampshire and aimed my campaign right at conservative South Carolina, where we've been campaigning hard and receiving an enthusiastic welcome."
After a fifth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Perry will likely finish the New Hampshire primary with less than 1 percent support. He didn't campaign in New Hampshire, instead focusing on South Carolina.
— Alicia M. Cohn and Jamie Klatell contributed.
— This story was originally posted at 8:05 p.m. and has been updated.