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Romney wins N.H. primary, Paul second, Huntsman third

Mitt Romney's decisive win in New Hampshire makes him the first non-incumbent Republican to win both the New Hampshire primary and Iowa caucuses since Iowa began kicking off the party's nominating process in 1976. TODAY's Savannah Guthrie reports.

 

Updated at 10:12 p.m. ET

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, scoring a decisive victory for the former Massachusetts governor in his bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished second, ahead of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who came in third. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trail.

Romney’s victory provides a degree of vindication for the campaign's putative frontrunner following a bruising 48 hours for his operation before voting began in New Hampshire. His rivals piled on the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts during a Sunday debate on “Meet the Press,” seizing on his record at Bain Capital, and his recent comments that he knows what it’s like to fear being given a “pink slip.”

Romney rallied supporters shortly after polls closed with a message trained carefully on Obama, mindful of the looming general election matchup should he secure the nomination.

"The president has run out of ideas; now he's running out of excuses," Romney told cheering supporters. "And tonight, we're asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire to make 2012 the year that he runs out of time."

And, in a pre-emptive shot at GOP competitors who are poised to attack his business record in South Carolina's pending primary, Romney said: "President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation."

In his victory speech after winning the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney criticizes President Obama and contrasts his agenda with characterizations of Obama's time in office.

The second-place finisher, Paul, appeared exuberant in a speech following Romney's.

"There is no doubt that this whole effort that we are invovled in will not go unnoticed, let me tell you," Paul told enthusiastic supporters in Manchester. Paul said that Romney's win was "clear cut," but called the results a victory for the libertarian movement he's worked to build in recent years, too.

The results are poised to drive a kind of gap between Romney, and the rest of the Republican field. New Hampshire’s results indicate that -- still -- no single candidate has been able to coalesce support by posturing themselves as the conservative alternative to the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney won Tuesday with a coalition of voters who thought electability and the economy were most important. Just over a third of voters in today’s primary said a candidate’s ability to beat Obama was the top issue in deciding their vote, according to exit poll data. Of those voters, 59 percent went for Romney.

Voters who said they were concerned about the economy also sided with Romney, who also won self-described conservatives and even Tea Party voters -- two blocs that had seemed disinclined to support Romney in last week’s Iowa caucus, in which the former Massachusetts governor scraped by with an 8-vote win. Sixty-one percent of voters said the economy was their top issue. Of them, 42 percent went for Romney.

For Romney, tonight’s results were a matter of meeting (if not beating) expectations. He had built this contest into a kind of firewall for his campaign, and worked to fight off complacency among his supporters this week.

"Let me tell you: Don’t get too confident with those poll numbers," he said at a Saturday rally in Derry. "I've watched poll numbers come and go things change very quickly its very fluid. I need to make sure you guys get your friends to go out and you vote as well."

But for as much as Romney had been expected to win New Hampshire, it only raised the stakes for an undercard battle between Paul and Huntsman for second place, with each seeking a burst of momentum heading down to South Carolina and its Jan. 21 primary.

Huntsman’s campaign had anecdotally claimed a late surge among voters, particularly independents, in the closing days and weeks of the campaign. A strong performance in particular at Sunday’s NBC News/Facebook debate on “Meet the Press” appears to have moved some voters in his direction. 

2012 GOP presidential candidate Ron Paul, celebrates his second place finish in the New Hampshire primary with supporters and emphasizes the message of liberty in his campaign.

Exit poll data seemed to lend credence to the notion of some "Huntsmentum." Of voters who decided in the last 10 days, Romney wins -- at 31 percent -- but Huntsman trails at 22 percent.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt!" Huntsman declared in his speech, vowing to fight on in South Carolina. "I'd say third place is a ticket to ride ... We've proved the point that this state wants candidates to earn it the old-fashioned way."

Paul, meanwhile, has leaned on the same brew of disenchanted independents, libertarians and young voters that he'd relied on in last week's caucus to fuel his campaign. But that formula led Paul to a somewhat disappointing third place finish in the Iowa.

Almost half of voters aged 18-29, who made up 12 percent of the electorate, favored Paul.

Independent and undeclared voters also appear to be playing a role in tonight’s outcome. Those voters made up about 47 percent of today’s electorate, a higher proportion than 1996, which was the last time Granite State voters went to the polls with only a Republican presidential primary on the ballot.

Of those independent voters, Romney and Paul tied at 30 percent, and Huntsman won 24 percent, according to early exit poll data.

But no candidate has indicated yet that they’ll drop out before South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, a contest dominated by conservatives.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is betting on those of socially conservative and evangelical Christian voters in the Palmetto State to resuscitate his campaign; he skipped New Hampshire altogether and spent the past week in South Carolina. And Santorum, after having battled Romney to a virtual tie in Iowa, split time in the past week between New Hampshire and South Carolina, the latter of which could prove more hospitable to his message.

Maybe no other candidate’s fortunes will be shaped more by tonight’s outcome, though, than Gingrich.

The former House speaker has all but abandoned his pledge to run a positive campaign in the past week and has doggedly pursued Romney, tarring him as a “timid Massachusetts Moderate,” and seizing on the restructuring work Bain Capital, which Romney co-founded, had done that resulted in layoffs.

"Let me put in context where we are. We have an opportunity, I think, to unify the country around a message of jobs, economic growth and very dramatic programs," Gingrich said in his speech. "This campaign is going to go onto South Carolina and we're going to offer the American people something very different."

Those are also arguments being voiced by a super PAC spending on Gingrich’s behalf in the Palmetto State, a preview of the nastiness that awaits the candidates in South Carolina. That primary has predicted the eventual GOP nominee in each election since its inception in 1984, and candidates are already spending millions of dollars to go on-air to compete in that contest in just 10 days.

And another pivotal primary, in Florida, waits just another 10 days later, when Sunshine State voters hold their primary.

While that state is more centrist overall, Florida’s primary is closed to Republicans only and awards all of its delegates to the winner of the contest, raising the stakes for the Jan. 31 primary.