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Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas greets supporters outside the Webster School polling place in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Ron Paul scored a solid second place finish in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday, positioning him as the leading anti-establishment alternative to Mitt Romney and ensuring a platform for the Texas congressman's libertarian message for weeks to come.

Paul won about 24 percent of the state's primary vote. It was an improvement from his showing in Iowa, where he placed third behind Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Inside a Manchester banquet hall, Paul told a cheering crowd the results repudiated critics who've warned that his views — particularly his anti-interventionist approach to foreign policy — were dangerous.

"They are telling the truth. Because we are dangerous — to the status quo," Paul said to loud cheers.

His New Hampshire showing represented a dramatic shift in fortune for Paul, a largely ignored also-ran in the 2008 Republican contest who placed a distant fifth in New Hampshire that year. This time, Paul's pledge to adhere to the Constitution, audit the Federal Reserve and reduce the size of the federal government found an audience among voters angry over government spending and bailouts and disillusioned with both parties in Washington.

While far behind Romney in New Hampshire, Paul was comfortably outpacing his other GOP rivals in the state.

The 76-year-old Texan ran strongest among young voters, according to exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks. Paul carried nearly half of voters under age 30. About 4 in 10 new voters backed Paul, though first-timers made up just 1 in 8 voters in the state.

Paul ran even with Romney among voters with household incomes below $50,000, and among those who cited the deficit as their top issue.

Paul garnered about 4 in 10 votes among those who said it was most important that their candidate be a true conservative or have strong moral character. He ran even with Romney among those who said a candidate's issue positions were more important than their leadership skills or personal qualities.

Still, a majority of New Hampshire voters said they ultimately would be dissatisfied if Paul became the nominee.

Paul told supporters he had called Romney to congratulate him on his strong showing.

"He certainly had a clear-cut victory But we are nibbling at his heels," Paul said, declaring a win for "the cause of liberty."

Paul planned to fly to South Carolina on Wednesday for a noon rally in Columbia. The state holds its primary Jan. 21.

AP Deputy Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.