But the real fight comes next.
New Hampshire has a tradition of upsetting the experts and giving the underdog a surprising victory in their traditional first-in-the-nation primary.
Not this time.
As expected, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney cruised to an easy victory on Tuesday night. Ron Paul finished a strong second and Jon Huntsman came in third. Romney, who has a summer home in the Granite State and has excellent name recognition as a result of his tenure as governor of next-door Massachusetts, ran well in all areas of the state -- urban, suburban, and rural -- while convincing the voters that he was the most electable of all the GOP candidates.
Romney became the first Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since 1976 when Gerald Ford turned the trick.
With most of the polls reporting, Romney would appear to have garnered about 39% of the vote, Ron Paul around 24% and Huntsman 17%. Romney was hoping to top 40%, which was where he had been polling the last week, but he emerges relatively unscathed despite some atypical gaffes in the last few days and a searing series of attacks by his GOP opponents.
The fight for second was the only significant question to answer at the end of the evening, with Huntsman surging from single digits in the polls just a few weeks ago and Ron Paul gaining momentum as well, attracting independents and Democrats who are allowed to vote in New Hampshire's semi-open primary. Both candidates have announced they will go on to South Carolina for that primary on January 21.
Romney's victory speech -- given just a half an hour after the polls closed and in the coveted 8:00 PM hour on the east coast -- delivered a withering blast at President Obama, as well as some harsh words about the line of attack that several of his GOP competitors chose to initiate. Criticism by Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and other GOP candidates of Romney's stewardship of his investment firm, Bain Capital, had many in the party crying foul and wondering whether the "desperate Republicans" as Romney called them, might be handing ammunition to Obama and the Democrats to use in the fall campaign.
But Romney saved his most potent barbs for the president. "We know that the future of this country is better than 8 percent or 9 percent unemployment. It is better than $15 trillion in debt. It is better than the misguided policies and broken promises of the last three years - and the failed leadership of one man," Romney said.
Recent polls show Romney with the best chance to defeat the president in November, and he is virtually tied with Obama as he consolidates his support in the Republican Party. Last month, according to a Reuters poll, only 18% of Republicans said they would vote for him in November. That number climbed to 30% following his slim victory in Iowa last week. He still trails the president in the Reuters poll by 48%-43%, with the RealClear Politics average giving Obama a slight edge. And a Gallup poll out this week shows that the former Massachusetts governor would be acceptable to 60% of conservatives -- a number that is almost certain to climb if Romney continues to win primaries.
Meanwhile, Ron Paul claimed he was "nibbling" at Romney's heels and that his second place finish was proof that he had momentum going into South Carolina and beyond. The Texas congressman's strong second place showing was a mild surprise, as he clearly outperformed expectations given that pre-primary polls showed him with less than 20% of the vote.
It is an open question whether Ron Paul's relative success in New Hampshire can translate into primary victories elsewhere. Few GOP primaries are open to Democrats and independents like New Hampshire's contest, and exit polls show Paul doing poorly with GOP voters (16% to Romney's 49%) and conservatives (19% to 42% for Romney). Losing 2-1 to your main rival for the nomination among those two groups is not a harbinger of success.
Jon Huntsman declared that he's "got a ticket to ride" to South Carolina because of his third place showing, but a more realistic assessment of his performance might argue that after spending more than 100 days straight criss-crossing New Hampshire and only finishing a distant third, his chances of winning the nomination are not any better than the also-rans. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum battled it out for 4th place, each polling around 10%, while Rick Perry barely registered in the polls, getting just 1%. Santorum and Perry were not seriously competing in New Hampshire, preferring to stake it all on making a good showing in South Carolina.
The exit polls reveal a Republican electorate seriously concerned about the electability of their candidate and Romney topped his competitors by a margin of 3-1 in that category. The exit polls also showed a Romney winning margin with all income groups, all religions, all age groups (except the 18-29 youth vote that went to Paul), tea party supporters, moderates, and those who consider themselves somewhat/very conservative. Paul surpassed Romney with registered Democrats and narrowly beat him with independents.
While these results may be atypical for Romney given his strong ties to the state and the nature of the electorate, which is decidedly less conservative than many other venues, the exit polls show that Mitt Romney's major selling point down the road to Republican voters will be his electability. When asked what was the one quality that mattered most in deciding who to vote for, 35% of voters said "can defeat Barack Obama." By a large margin, this was the quality most Republicans in New Hampshire were looking for and Romney claimed 62% of the voters who felt that way. Newt Gingrich came in second with 12%.
The upcoming primary in South Carolina on January 21 promises to be even more bruising than New Hampshire for the frontrunner. Polls show Romney with a slight lead and his closest rivals in the Palmetto State -- Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- will almost certainly bring out the heavy artillery and blast away at what they are saying is Romney's predatory capitalism practiced while he was CEO of Bain Capital. Romney's claim that he helped create 100,000 jobs by taking over failing businesses and making them more efficient has been challenged by both his GOP opponents and Democrats, who are warming up their attack machine, echoing many of the criticisms of Romney by members of his own party.
An analysis by the Wall Street Journal reveals that, while Romney made a lot of money for himself and his investors, and was successful in turning around some businesses, there were also many companies that failed and even more where there were job losses. The fact is, both Romney and his opponents are exaggerating his record at Bain, which plays into the hands of the Democrats who are gleefully watching Gingrich et al. tear into the frontrunner, hoping to bloody him and keep him from running away with the nomination.
That may prove very difficult to do. There will almost certainly be several candidates who will not make it out of South Carolina, narrowing the field to the point that for the first time, the conservative vote will not be as fractured as it was in New Hampshire. The next contest after South Carolina is Florida on January 31 where there may be only 2 conservative rivals for Romney to overcome. If the conservative vote coalesces behind one candidate, Romney will be challenged as never before.
But the frontrunner may have a secret weapon in the Sunshine State. Former Governor Jeb Bush has not openly declared a preference for his state's primary, but it is believed that he is leaning toward Romney. There are close ties between Jeb and the Romney campaign as several aides of the former Florida governor are currently working for Romney. Former President George H.W. Bush has endorsed Romney and it is believed that even if he was inclined to support another candidate, Jeb would defer to his father and not undercut his endorsement. Even a neutral Jeb Bush helps Romney in a state that is ruinously expensive as far as paid media is concerned and the frontrunner will have the cash to far outspend his rivals.
If Romney can run the table from Iowa through Florida, it is very difficult to imagine a scenario where he can be stopped from claiming the nomination. Much of the GOP might not like it, but Mitt Romney has the momentum, the organization, and the cash to make hash out of the GOP race and unless a way can be found to stop him, he is likely to be the Republican candidate for president in November.
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