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CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney cruised to a solid victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, picking up steam from his first-place finish in the lead-off Iowa caucuses and firmly establishing himself as the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination.
"Tonight we made history," Romney told cheering supporters before pivoting to a stinging denunciation of President Barack Obama. "The middle class has been crushed ... our debt is too high and our opportunities too few," he declared — ignoring the rivals who had been assailing him for weeks and making clear he intends to be viewed as the party's nominee in waiting after only two contests.
His Republican rivals said otherwise, looking ahead to South Carolina on Jan. 21 as the place to stop the former Massachusetts governor. Already, several contenders and committees supporting them had put down heavy money to reserve time for television advertising there.
Even so, the order of finish — Ron Paul second, followed by Jon Huntsman, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum trailing — scrambled the field and prolonged the increasingly desperate competition to emerge as the true conservative rival to Romney.
With his victory, Romney became the first Republican to sweep the first two contests in competitive races since 1976. Based on partial returns, The Associated Press estimated that turnout would exceed the 2008 record by about 4 percent.
Romney fashioned his victory despite a sustained assault by rivals eager to undermine his claim as the contender best situated to beat Obama and help reduce the nation's painfully high unemployment. Gingrich led the way, suggesting at one point that Romney, a venture capitalist, was a corporate raider. The front-runner's defenders said the rhetoric was more suitable to a Democratic opponent than a conservative Republican.
Returns from 69 percent of New Hampshire precincts showed Romney with 38 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Rep Paul with 24 percent, former Utah Gov. Huntsman with 17 percent and former House Speaker Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum with 10 percent each.
In interviews as they left their polling places, New Hampshire voters said the economy was the issue that mattered most to them, and a candidate's ability to defeat Obama outranked other qualities.
Romney had won in Iowa by a scant eight votes over Santorum, and gained barely a quarter of the vote there.
On Tuesday, he battled not only his rivals but also high expectations as the ballots were counted, particularly since his pursuers had virtually conceded New Hampshire, next-door to the state Romney governed for four years.
Seeking to undercut Romney's victory, Gingrich and others suggested in advance that anything below 40 percent or so would indicate weakness by the nomination front-runner.
They didn't mention that Sen. John McCain's winning percentage in the 2008 primary was 37 percent.
Romney's win was worth seven delegates to the Republican National Convention next summer. Paul earned three delegates and Huntsman two.
"Tonight we celebrate," Romney told his supporters. "Tomorrow we go back to work."
Unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, where unemployment is well below the national average, joblessness is far higher in South Carolina. That creates a different political environment for the race.
The state also has a reputation for primaries turning nasty, and it appeared that all of Romney's pursuers read the new Hampshire returns as reason enough to remain in the race.
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