MANCHESTER: Mitt Romney stormed Tuesday to a commanding win in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary, making him the clear favorite to take on President Barack Obama in November.
The former Massachusetts governor and millionaire venture capitalist immediately looked to South Carolina's January 21 primary, hoping a victory there and in Florida on January 31 could effectively anoint him the nominee.
Obama "has run out of ideas. Now, he's running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time," he declared.
Public opinion polls showed Romney leading his more conservative rivals in both of the next battlegrounds – large states where his well-oiled, well-funded campaign machine could roll up the opposition.
Based on early results, Romney was set to win here easily – the first time since 1976 that a Republican candidate who is not an incumbent president won this contest and the Iowa caucuses that precede it.
With almost 70 percent of the ballots counted, Romney was storming to victory with some 38 percent of the vote.
After surviving a furious 11th-hour onslaught from his Republican rivals, who tarred him as a callous corporate raider who put people out of work, Romney defiantly trumpeted his business experience as his number-one asset.
"Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense," said Romney.
Romney has insisted that his private sector triumphs make him the best person to take on Obama, whose reelection bid is weighed down by the sagging US economy and high unemployment.
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," he declared.
"This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success," said Romney.
Veteran Representative Ron Paul of Texas, a small-government champion whose opposition to overseas military interventions has rankled the party's establishment, was expected to come in second with around 24 percent.
"We're nibbling at his heels!" Paul told a rowdy crowd of supporters, who chanted "President Paul!"
"We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight," he said.
Former US envoy to China Jon Huntsman, who bet his political fortunes on a strong showing here, was on track to come in third with around 17 percent, after a late surge tied to a strong weekend debate performance and a newfound combativeness.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt!" he said at a rally. "I'd say third place is a ticket to ride!"
Christian conservative former senator Rick Santorum was battling with former House speaker Newt Gingrich for fourth place at 10 percent, and Texas Governor Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire to go directly to South Carolina, clung to one percent.
"We're going to go on to South Carolina," vowed Santorum.
At Gingrich's sparsely attended and subdued post-primary party, his supporters openly expressed disappointment.
"I hope he goes on to do well in South Carolina. I don't know if he can go on a lot longer. It may be Mitt all the way. But you never know," said Gail Gorham, 73, a retired homemaker from Derry.
"I don't think Mitt will do well in the South," said Linda Dupree, 64, a manufacturing worker from Campton. "Just because Romney won two states doesn't mean the whole thing is over."
A vast campaign war chest and high-profile endorsements have fed Romney's image as the man to beat, but he faces stubborn doubts about his conservative credentials and has been unable to push his nationwide Republican support above 30 percent.
In South Carolina, Romney may face stiff resistance from conservatives who think he is a flip-flopper and from evangelical Christians wary of his Mormon faith, but he also has the backing of Governor Nikki Haley.
The mood at Romney's rally was exuberant, and the normally stiff candidate even allowed himself a moment to dance as his supporters sang along to Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."
Obama meanwhile faced no serious competition in the Democratic primaries here – his slate of 13 rivals included Craig 'Tax Freeze' Freis and Vermin Supreme, an eccentric who spent the last few days going to Republican rallies and heckling the candidates with a bullhorn.
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