Mitt Romney dominates New Hampshire primary

Mitt Romney captured the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night easily beating back his Republican competitors by a wide margin, with Ron Paul finishing in a strong second place and an energized Jon Huntsman coming in third.

Election officials reported that with 92 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney lead with 39 percent of the vote, Paul had 23 percent and Huntsman carried 17 percent. Rounding out the contest were Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with ten percent, or 21,742 votes, and former Sen. Rick Santorum with nine percent and 21,562 votes.

The landslide for the former Massachusetts governor follows on the heels of his Iowa success — the first time a non-incumbent Republican has won both contests since 1976 –and he took 13 delegates. At stake in the New Hampshire contest are 12 delegates.

“Tonight, we made history,” Romney told his supporters. “The Granite State moment we just enjoyed is one we will always remember. Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work.”

Romney’s ultimate margin of victory will have a significant bearing on the story coming out of New Hampshire.  His numbers appeared to be slipping in some polls over the weekend as he weathered sustained criticism for his private-sector career with equity firm Bain Capital.  Romney’s critics accused the firm of predatory practices that led to unnecessarily large job losses among companies it bought and sold.  On the eve of the primaries, however, Romney’s polls were beginning to pick up again.

“Americans know our future is brighter than these troubled times,” Romney said. “We still believe in the hope, the promise, and the dream of America. We still believe in that shinning city on the hill. We know it’s better than the failed leadership of one man.”

“The president has run out of ideas, now he’s run out of excuses,” Romney said. “Make 2012 the year he runs out of time.”

Jim Merrill, Romney’s senior advisor in New Hampshire, told HUMAN EVENTS  that Romney’s comments about his enjoyment in firing people who provided services referred to health plans, and was “clearly taken out of context.”

“I think you saw a lot of push back from conservatives around the country that are very troubled by what seems to be an attack on capitalism and the governor’s really terrific record in the private sector creating jobs over 25 years,” Merrill said. “So we’ll take our record of creating jobs up against anybody in this race, and certainly against President Obama.”

Huntsman pledged to suspend his campaign if he didn’t finish in the top three, so the strong showing was crucial for him. 

“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in the hunt!” Huntsman said. “I’d say a third-place finish is a ticket to ride.”

Earlier in the day, Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller also spoke with HUMAN EVENTS but declined to speculate whether his boss would place in the top three.

“We’ve seen a lot of momentum over the weekend, an overwhelmingly positive response to Gov. Huntsman’s rejoinder to Mitt Romney over the fact that he’s going to serve his country first, while Mitt Romney has a history of putting politics first,” Miller said.

However, Huntsman is currently sitting dead last in South Carolina’s election next week, where the polls show Romney opening a commanding lead over Gingrich with an average ten-point advantage. 

Paul’s second-place success was bolstered by a large turnout of Independent voters, and he declared his win as a “victory for the causes of liberty.”

“I called Romney and congratulated him, because he certainly had a clear-cut victory. But, we are nipping at his heels,” Paul said.

Paul took a shot at the media for neglecting his campaign and said that while he and his supporters “don’t always get the coverage or interest,” when they do get attention “they describe me and you as being dangerous.”

“That’s one thing they are telling the truth about, because we are dangerous to the status quo of this country,” Paul said to shouts of “President Paul” from his supporters.

On the conservative side of the bracket, Gingrich and Santorum traded places several times during the evening in a virtual tie for fourth place, and symbolically gave their election night speeches at the same time crowding out the other as they are likely going to do in South Carolina, to the benefit of Romney.

Gingrich said he was not surprised that Romney ran away with the vote. “He’s lived here, he bought a house here, he’s been here for five years,” Gingrich told HUMAN EVENTS just hours before the polls closed.

“We’re hoping for third (place), it’s a little hard to get past Ron Paul at this stage,” Gingrich said.

As Gingrich also told supporters that he would continue his campaign in South Carolina as a “bold, Reagan conservative.”

“We’re going to offer the American people something very different. We’re going to offer them the opportunity to participate in a very dramatic and very fundamental change in Washington,” Gingrich said.

Santorum seemed resigned to a third or fourth place win, telling HUMAN EVENTS in an interview on election eve “we understood we had limitations here.”

“We understand that Mitt Romney has been here for six years, and Ron Paul’s been running since 1930 something, so we know what we’re up against in trying to crack this too, but we’re here, working hard,” Santorum said.

Santorum later told his supporters that his campaign delivered the message that he can beat Obama.

“We have an opportunity in this race to be the true conservative who can go out and do what is necessary, not just to win this race,” Santorum said. “And we can win this race.”

Romney might actually be able to turn the intensity of the attacks against his venture capitalist days to his advantage.  Some conservatives are already grumbling about what they see as beyond-the-pale populist language from Gingrich and Perry. 

Romney made the opening moves of political judo in his acceptance speech when he said that “In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with [President Obama.]  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.”

Observers were keenly interested in whether the sustained assault on Romney’s work with Bain Capital in the private sector, which were kicked into high gear during the last week of the campaign, would have any effect.

Both Perry and Gingrich attacked Romney’s association with the company, and at a campaign stop in South Carolina on Tuesday, Perry associated Bain with “vulture capitalism.” But many have interpreted Gingrich’s and Perry’s criticisms of Bain as an attack on venture capital and private equity and not just an attack on one specific firm, which will make it more difficult, in the long run, to consolidate the anti-Romney vote.

In the end, it doesn’t look as if the Bain assault hurt Romney all that much.  The last Suffolk Research Center polls showed him trending up, from 33 percent heading into the weekend to 37 percent on Monday.  This matched up well with his final percentage of the vote.  It’s also an improvement of six percent over Romney’s showing in New Hampshire in 2008, and equals John McCain’s winning total from the same year.  It’s difficult to see this as a badly wounded Romney limping across the finish line.

Organization and door-to-door retail campaigning make a much bigger difference in the small, early primary states than they will in the larger South Carolina and Florida battlegrounds to come.  The early states also influence voter perceptions of which candidates remain viable alternatives, as well as shaping the flow of donations.  New Hampshire could have kneecapped Romney if it had gone badly – even if he dramatically under-performed while still winning. 

That didn’t happen, and if Romney can roll up the next few contests as well, there might not be left to discuss. Unless, New Hampshire’s results set the table for one of the other candidates to consolidate the anti-Romney vote, as the field narrows.  The window of opportunity for such consolidation closed a little bit further on Tuesday night.

John Gizzi in New Hampshire, and Audrey Hudson and Tony Lee in Washington, contributed to this report.