MANCHESTER, N.H.--Mitt Romney's 16-point victory over Ron Paul in the New Hampshire primary provided a big boost for his candidacy as the race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination heads to South Carolina. Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since Iowa assumed the pole position in the party's race to the nomination in 1976.
Romney is now in a stronger position to capture the nomination than he has ever been in, despite a tough 48 hours spent defending his work as a venture capitalist.
Yet Romney is still some distance from being able to put the race away. South Carolina, where Republicans vote on Jan. 21, will be a pivotal and defining contest. Every Republican candidate since 1980 who became the party's presidential nominee has won the South Carolina primary.
"Tonight, we made history," Romney said to cheering supporters at his victory celebration. "Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work."
And work it will be. A barrage of negative television advertising against Romney, unlike anything he has faced thus far in the campaign, awaits him in South Carolina. The pro-Gingrich super PAC "Winning Our Future" plans to begin airing an ad Wednesday based on an anti-Romney documentary about his tenure at Bain Capital. The group plans to spend more than $3 million to make sure it is seen far and wide.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial," Romney said Tuesday. "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. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision."
Romney's victory was broad. He was competitive among independents, very conservative, and evangelical voters. He also bested the competition among strong supporters of the Tea Party.
Romney's greatest challenge going forward is that the Republican primary electorate in New Hampshire is not like the electorate he will find in South Carolina and beyond. Nearly 60 percent of Republican voters in New Hampshire on Tuesday said they were moderate to liberal on social issues. That will not be the case in South Carolina.
Two key assets that helped Romney separate himself from the pack were his presumed electability and the comfort among Republican voters with the notion of Romney as their standard bearer.
A majority of voters tonight said Romney was the candidate most able to beat Barack Obama and 60 percent of them said they would be comfortable if Romney emerged as the party's nominee.
Ron Paul rode to a strong second place showing by again relying on independents and first time voters. He won 37 percent of first-time voters, according to exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool on behalf of the Associated Press and the five television networks. Unfortunately for Paul, first-time voters made up a much smaller slice of the electorate in New Hampshire (13 percent) than they did in Iowa last week (38 percent). In order to fight back to within striking distance of Romney in South Carolina and beyond, Paul will need to bring many more new voters into the process.
Jon Huntsman gambled everything on New Hampshire and came in a distant third, but he vowed to continue his campaign.
"Where we stand right now is a solid, comfortable, confident position. And we go south from here," Huntsman, a former Utah governor, told CNN in an interview as he prepared to move forward with his campaign to South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary.
Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum rounded out the top five with a disappointing nine percent of the vote each. Santorum was unable to convert his burst of energy out of the Iowa caucuses into a significant showing here.
In 2008, more than 234,000 votes were cast in New Hampshire's Republican primary. Despite the absence of a competitive race on the Democratic side this year, turnout looked headed for a similar showing, which could raise questions about overall Republican enthusiasm.
One big question hanging over the race for the next 10 days is whether or not the Huntsman super PAC gets a huge infusion of cash from Huntsman's father to begin airing TV ads against Mitt Romney. It also remains to be seen if Rick Perry, who has had South Carolina mostly to himself for the last several days, can reignite significant support and if he has the money to do so.
Romney will also have to work to turn around the negative narrative his opponents and the White House have built, framing him as a Wall Street "corporate raider," which may not be easily shaken as the race heads to the most economically challenged state of the contest thus far.
David Chalian is the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News. Read more coverage of the 2012 New Hampshire primary at The Ticket.
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