Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney celebrate… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. — Mitt Romney rolled to an easy victory Tuesday in the New Hampshire primary, taking a broad stride toward capturing the GOP presidential nomination as the contest heads south for a pair of potentially make-or-break contests.
The win, forecast by the television networks from exit polls almost immediately after voting ended, gives Romney a one-two sweep in the early balloting of the 2012 campaign, a first for any Republican apart from a sitting president.
The conservative candidates who stand the best chance to stop him as the race heads to South Carolina – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- were trailing far back and appeared unlikely to get a significant lift from their performance here.
PHOTOS: New Hampshire voters head to the polls
In polling before Tuesday’s election, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. were vying for second place. Santorum, the Iowa runner-up by a handful of votes, and Gingrich were scrambling to create some sense of momentum for their campaigns. Perry abandoned New Hampshire, staking his future on South Carolina.
Romney starts out leading there, too, but that challenge promises to be much more formidable than New Hampshire which, from the start, was a fight to finish second behind the former Massachusetts governor. Unlike Iowa, where leaders came and went atop the polls, no survey ever showed Romney with less than a sizable, double-digit New Hampshire lead.
In South Carolina, however, Romney won't have what amounted to a home-field advantage -- five Massachusetts presidential hopefuls have won the neighboring Granite State in past elections -- and he will face a much different electorate in the first Southern primary next week.
South Carolina has a large and politically important bloc of evangelical voters. Romney will face resistance among some of those Christian conservatives who are suspicious if not downright hostile toward his Mormon faith. In New Hampshire, just 14% of those who voted Tuesday said being a “true conservative” was the most important thing to them, trailing far behind the economic concerns cited by 6 in 10 voters, according to election day interviews by the TV networks.
Romney is also facing a more assertive pack of runners-up.
After largely fighting among themselves for the last several months, they took after Romney in New Hampshire with sudden ferocity, ganging up on him in a Sunday debate and pounding him since then over his work at Bain Capital, the private investment firm he co-founded and the source of Romney's great personal wealth.
While he cites his business background as a virtue, especially in contrast with the extensive Washington resumes of most of his rivals, Romney's opponents have depicted him as a heartless, job-slashing corporate raider.
He handed them a cudgel while campaigning Monday with a remark -- wrenched from its original context -- that, “I like to be able to fire people.” Although Romney made the comment in regard to healthcare and holding insurance companies accountable, his rivals seized on it as evidence of his callousness.
Still, Romney moves ahead with many advantages, not least a big edge in money and campaign organization, which become increasingly important as the race shifts from statewide contests in Iowa and New Hampshire to a series of big-state battles across the country.
Victories in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida 10 days later could all but ensure that Romney will capture the nomination, and sooner rather than later.
Part of his strength is derived from the weakness of the opposition.
Each of his rivals holds particular appeal to segments of the Republican base -- Paul with libertarians, Santorum and Perry with social conservatives, Gingrich with voters seeking intellectual heft and a long-range vision. None, however, offer a complete package and that has boosted Romney, who enjoys the steady support of at least a quarter of the electorate.
He could also benefit, as he did in last week's squeaker win in Iowa, if evangelicals and tea-party acolytes split their votes among several contenders on the right, allowing Romney to prevail over a crowded field.
Immediately after Sunday’s debate Perry retreated to South Carolina, where he has been pounding Romney on his performance at Bain.
Paul, a Houston-area congressman, will compete there as well, but has already said he won’t make a major effort in Florida, which will hold the first big-state primary at the end of the month.
Huntsman has also set his sights on South Carolina, but he has considerable ground to make up. Although he invested early he has spent little time there lately and his relatively centrist positions are likely to play less well than they did in more moderate New Hampshire. Florida would demand a heavy investment in advertising dollars just to become better known.