By Ros Krasny and Sam Youngman
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire | Tue Jan 10, 2012 11:01pm EST
(Reuters) – Mitt Romney took a crucial step toward the Republican presidential nomination on Tuesday with a solid victory in New Hampshire despite attacks on his record as a businessman.
Seen as the most likely Republican candidate to beat Democratic President Barack Obama, the former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive took 38 percent of the vote in the New Hampshire primary, the second contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination.
Romney outpaced rivals Ron Paul, a U.S. congressman known for libertarian views, and Jon Huntsman, a moderate former U.S. ambassador to China. With 77 percent of precincts reporting, Paul was drawing about 23 percent and Huntsman 17 percent.
Romney has now won the first two nominating contests after narrowly taking the Iowa caucuses on January 3, and may now find it easier to convince skeptics within his own party that he is the strongest Republican to take on Obama in the November 6 election.
Romney, whose next test is the South Carolina primary on January 21, has tried to keep the focus on Obama, and he immediately took aim at the president in remarks to supporters.
“The president has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses,” Romney told a cheering crowd chanting his first name. “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.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Tuesday showed Romney was way ahead of rival Republicans nationally, with 30 percent support. He still trailed Obama by 5 percentage points in the White House race.
Romney has struggled to win over conservatives who are unnerved by his shifting stances on hot-button social issues like abortion and his stint as a centrist governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Some conservative Christian voters are wary of his Mormon faith.
With economic concerns topping the agenda, Romney has argued that his experience buying and selling companies as head of investment firm Bain Capital would make him the best candidate to put the shaky U.S. economy on a stronger footing.
In recent days, rivals like former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich have painted him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed cutting jobs – an unusual debate in the business-friendly Republican Party.
The attacks appeared to have had little effect in New Hampshire, the small New England state known for its independent streak and outsized role in presidential campaigns. The state’s 5.2 percent unemployment rate is well below the national average of 8.5 percent.
SWIPE AT RIVALS
Influential conservatives warned that the debate ran counter to the party’s free-market ideals, and Romney took a swipe at rivals in his victory speech.
“President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial, and in the last few days we’ve seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and our nation,” he said.
Romney faced little doubt that he would win New Hampshire, where religious conservatives play a less dominant role than they do in states likes Iowa and South Carolina.
The question in recent days has been by how much. Romney owns a vacation home in New Hampshire and has campaigned extensively in the state since announcing his presidential bid last spring.
Voters in New Hampshire shared his emphasis on economic issues. Exit polls found that 85 percent named the economy and record U.S. budget deficits as their top concern.
A narrow victory would have been viewed as a disappointment, and anything less than the 32 percent he took in his failed 2008 bid would have been seen as an outright repudiation.
Romney’s margin of victory is close to the average for winners in the state since the 1970s. He is the first non-incumbent Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since the states took on their first-in-the-nation status in the 1970s.
He might face a bigger challenge in South Carolina, where the economy is weaker and conservatives make up a larger slice of the electorate. The southern state’s primary could be the last chance for rivals to consolidate a splintered conservative vote and derail Romney’s march toward the nomination.
Though only three states will have voted at that point, losing rivals could have trouble raising money and convincing voters they are still viable.
Second-place finisher Paul’s critical view of the U.S. Federal Reserve has changed little over the decades. But his antiwar, small-government message has recently drawn a fervent following among younger voters who feel alienated from Washington and Wall Street.
‘HAVE TO CHUCKLE’
“I sort of have to chuckle when they describe you and me as dangerous,” Paul told supporters, as they chanted “President Paul.” “They’re telling the truth because we are dangerous to the status quo.”
Huntsman had pinned his hopes on an upset in New Hampshire to bolster a candidacy that has failed to excite many Republicans on a national level.
The former Utah governor’s third place finish was not likely to deliver the boost he had sought as the race shifts to more conservative states like South Carolina. Huntsman said he would stay in the race.
“Here we sit tonight, ladies and gentlemen, with a ticket to ride and to move on. Here we go to South Carolina,” he told supporters.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum was unable to build on his surprise second-place finish in Iowa last week, winning only about 10 percent of the vote. Gingrich also took 10 percent, a sharp fall from the nationwide Republican frontrunner status he enjoyed in December.
Gingrich’s support has eroded under a barrage of negative advertising unleashed by Romney allies, and he has responded with the toughest assault against Romney. In debates and campaign appearances, Gingrich has cited a Reuters story that closely examined a steel mill that went into bankruptcy under Bain’s tenure.
As the results came in from New Hampshire, Gingrich released a new ad criticizing Romney’s past support for abortion. A pro-Gingrich group leaked a 27-minute video that highlights companies shuttered under Bain’s ownership.
“Mitt Romney was not a capitalist during his reign at Bain. He was a predatory corporate raider,” the video said.
Democrats and media groups, meanwhile, have debunked Romney’s claim that he created more jobs at Bain than Obama has as president.
The attacks did not sway voters, who said they were looking for an electable, experienced candidate.
“I was looking for someone who is smart, knows our country, knows the financial system and how to get the country moving again with jobs,” said Eddie Carr, a 77-year-old school bus driver who voted for Romney. “I think it was right to vote for him. I think he can get the country going.”