(Corrects Meg Whitman’s title in last paragraph. For more campaign news, see ELECT.)
Jan. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney cemented his status as the Republican presidential front-runner yesterday with a win in the New Hampshire primary that left rivals fighting for a chance to derail his march to the nomination as the race moves south.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses by eight votes, ran 16 percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor in New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary.
He had 39 percent of the vote, with 95 percent of the precincts counted in the Associated Press tally. U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas finished second with 23 percent, followed by former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. with 17 percent.
“Tonight we celebrate, tomorrow we go back to work,” Romney told supporters in Manchester last night in a speech that debuted new lines of attack against President Barack Obama.
Romney told his audience the president he hopes to oppose in November “has run out of ideas” and is “running out of excuses.”
South Carolina Contest
Referring to the next primary on Jan. 21, Romney added: “Tonight, we’re 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 made history as the first Republican non-incumbent to win both the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses since Iowa began kicking off the party’s presidential nominating process in 1976.
Paul, whose libertarian views resonated with New Hampshire voters who in exit polls said they had no allegiance to either of the major political parties, celebrated his showing.
Romney “had a clear-cut victory, but we’re nibbling at his heels,” he told a cheering crowd in Manchester.
“There’s no way they are going to stop the momentum that we have started,” Paul said. “We are dangerous to the status quo of this country.”
Huntsman, who staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire and blanketed the state for months, pledged to continue his candidacy.
‘Ticket to Ride’
“I think we’re in the hunt!” he told backers in Manchester, adding, “Third place is a ticket to ride.”
Huntsman also declared: “Hello, South Carolina.”
Polls in that state, though, have shown him lagging behind the pack.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was slightly ahead of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for fourth place in New Hampshire; each had about 9 percent of the vote. Both looked for better showings in South Carolina and Florida, which holds its primary on Jan. 31.
Finishing sixth, with less than 1 percent, was Texas Governor Rick Perry. He skipped campaigning in New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, where voters concerned about issues such as gay marriage and abortion hold greater sway.
Perry said in a statement that the New Hampshire results “show the race for a ‘conservative alternative’ to Mitt Romney remains wide open.”
He said he “skipped New Hampshire and aimed my campaign right at conservative South Carolina,” adding that he had a “head start” there.
The final days of the New Hampshire campaign suggested the South Carolina contest could be marked by attacks on Romney that aim to blunt his momentum by undercutting his argument that he is the candidate best able to revive the economy.
Some of Romney’s rivals portrayed him to New Hampshire voters as a corporate raider who chose profit over jobs in his years as a private-equity executive at Boston-based Bain Capital LLC.
Romney had been put on the defensive over an off-the-cuff remark he made Jan. 9 that he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
He was referring to health-insurance companies -- not his own employees.
Huntsman was among those pushing for a late burst of support from a backlash over Romney’s “firing” comment.
“Our closing message to New Hampshire voters is about restoring trust and putting country first; Mitt Romney’s closing message is about petty politics and firing people,” said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller in a statement.
A film financed by Gingrich backers and set for release in South Carolina today attacks Romney as a child of privilege who is “more ruthless than Wall Street.”
The film relates the stories of people who say they lost their jobs after their companies were taken over by Bain, without naming the workers. The video, while often relying on news accounts, at times stretches the truth and takes some reports out of context or selectively edits them, a review by Bloomberg News shows.
Turnout in New Hampshire’s Republican race was lower than in 2008, with about 228,000 participating compared to about 239,000 four years ago. Voter turnout in the Iowa caucuses was only a few thousand higher than in 2008, falling short of predictions of a much large boost by state party leaders.
New Hampshire’s primary voters were motivated chiefly by a desire to choose a candidate who could defeat Obama, according to results of exit polls reported by the Associated Press. About a third cited that as their main voting criterion.
The economy dominated as the issue most on the minds of voters, with about six in 10 saying it was their chief worry, the AP reported.
Independents accounted for 47 percent of the primary voters, according to the exit polls, while Republicans accounted for 49 percent.
Romney, Paul and Huntsman were virtually tied among the independents, with Romney and Paul each drawing support from 29 percent and Huntsman backed by 25 percent.
At the Romney victory party, top aides, fundraisers and backers from across the country broke into hugs and cheers as television networks projected the candidate the winner seconds after the last New Hampshire polls closed at 8 p.m. local time.
“Unbelievable,” said John Rood, a chairman of Romney’s Florida finance team.
Supporters still cautioned that Romney had a long way to go to win the nomination.
“It’s not locked up,” said Meg Whitman, the president and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co. and the unsuccessful 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate in California.
--With assistance from Peter Cook and Sandrine Rastello in Manchester, New Hampshire, Julie Bykowicz in Fort Hill, South Carolina and Roger Runningen and Catherine Dodge in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Manchester, New Hampshire at firstname.lastname@example.org; Lisa Lerer in Manchester, New Hampshire at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org