Manchester, N.H. • Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney handily won the New Hampshire Republican primary Tuesday, leveling a one-two punch against his rivals that could roll into a quick lock on the presidential nomination.
Romney, who also bested the GOP field in Iowa, took the key Granite State by a significant margin.
Ex-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who staked his entire campaign on a good showing in New Hampshire, nabbed a third-place finish, coming in several points behind Rep. Ron Paul who appeared to draw independents Huntsman had been seeking.
For Huntsman, the spot is enough to continue on to South Carolina for the next battle and he spun his loss as an out-of-the-ashes moment for his campaign.
“I say third pace is a ticket to ride,” Huntsman said. “We’re going to South Carolina.”
Romney, though, is leading in polls in the next primary and walks into the state Wednesday as the clear front-runner hoping to sweep the early contests on the way to challenging President Barack Obama. The former head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City offered a blistering take on Obama’s presidency as he eyed taking him on.
“The president has run out of ideas,” Romney said. “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.”
Romney, who had lost the New Hampshire primary four years ago, told an exuberant crowd that, “Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work.”
Both Romney and Huntsman have events scheduled for Wednesday in Columbia, S.C.
Huntsman saw an 11th hour surge of momentum that brought him into contention against Paul, though it came too late to carry Huntsman higher.
Supporters chanting “country first” welcomed the ex-governor to a packed-to-the-gills bar in downtown Manchester where he thanked supporters and vowed to fight on.
Huntsman has abandoned a more aggressive push in South Carolina after fund-raising started to dry up.
But campaign manager Matt David said he expects to have all the resources to compete — he noted a sharp up-tick in donations in recent days — and that the former governor has one of the strongest ground forces in South Carolina.
“We were at seven points [in the polls] last Friday and we’re going to finish near 20” percent, David said. “We’ve just got to continue to build on this momentum.”
Short on campaign cash, Huntsman had held more than 170 events in New Hampshire, trying to woo voters in small groups instead of airing television commercials.
It worked with Karen Howard of Merrimack.
“He brings a fresh approach to things,” she said after voting for him. “I like everything he stands for. He’s the real deal.”
But Romney voters — and those backing Paul — dominated across the state.
“He would be the best challenger to Barack Obama,” said Joy Dustin of Concord, who said she sees Romney as a president who could bring positive change for the nation. “A change would be good for America.”
There was a sense with some voters, however, that they’re none-to-happy with Romney as their nominee.
“I don’t trust Mitt Romney,” said Michelle Michaud of Nashua who voted for Paul. “He’s too suave, too GQ. Something just doesn’t rub right about him.”
Nicola Poitras cast her ballot for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who was locked in a too-close-to-call struggle with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for fourth place.
“I don’t trust any of the others,” Poitras said. “Mitt Romney so screwed up Massachusetts,” she doesn’t want him to run the country.
Romney owns a lakeside home in New Hampshire and had been the odds-on favorite to win the state heading into the primary.