CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney battled his Republican presidential rivals and high expectations Tuesday in New Hampshire's primary, first in the nation and well known for surprise endings.
Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry shared the ballot, competing for political standing as the GOP calendar turns to South Carolina, where the next primary is on Jan. 21.
Huntsman, in particular, staked his candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire. Santorum said second place "would be a dream come true."
Not for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who swept into the state nearly a week ago after winning the Iowa caucuses by eight votes over Santorum. That result, coupled with New Hampshire's proximity to Massachusetts, caused Perry to take a pass on the state, and the other contenders also all but conceded a Romney victory on Tuesday.
About one-third of Republican voters interviewed as they left their polling places said the most important factor in choosing a candidate was finding someone who could defeat President Barack Obama in the fall — a claim that Romney made often.
About one-quarter of those interviewed cited strong moral character or experience as the most important factor in selecting someone to support, followed by a candidate's true conservatism.
As was the case last week in the Iowa caucuses, the economy was the issue that mattered most.
In tiny Dixville Notch, the village that traditionally votes at midnight. Romney and Huntsman each received two of the six votes. One went to Gingrich and the other to Paul. Huntsman said hopefully, "Dixville Notch might be a harbinger in this race."
A Romney victory would make him the first Republican to sweep the first two contests in a competitive race since Iowa gained the lead-off spot in presidential campaigns in 1976.
Yet independents are permitted to vote in either party's primary in New Hampshire, and the state has a rich history of humbling favorites, front-runners and even an occasional incumbent.
The state's Republican voters embarrassed President George H.W. Bush in 1992, when he won but was held to 53 percent of the vote against Pat Buchanan, running as an insurgent in difficult economic times. Buchanan, who never held public office, won the primary four years later over Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who was the nominee in the fall.
In 2000, national front-runner George W. Bush rolled into the state after a convincing first-place finish in Iowa but wound up a distant second behind Sen. John McCain. Bush later won the GOP nomination and then the presidency.
Twelve Republican National Convention delegates were at stake on Tuesday, out of 1,144 needed to win the nomination.
Obama was unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, predicted about 250,000 ballots would be cast in the GOP race. If so, that would be slightly more than double the turnout last week in Iowa's caucuses.
The state has about 232,000 registered Republicans, 223,000 Democrats and 313,000 voters who are undeclared or independent.
In his first presidential run in 2008, Romney finished second in the state to McCain. This time, he campaigned with the Arizona senator's endorsement, as well as backing from Sen. Kelly Ayotte and numerous other members of the state's Republican establishment.
As in Iowa, the economy in New Hampshire is in better shape than in much of the country. Unemployment in November was 5.2 percent, far below the national average of 8.6 percent.
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