MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney won the first primary of the 2012 presidential campaign Tuesday night, beating back charges by his conservative Republican rivals that he is a political moderate and a corporate raider, to score an impressive double-digit victory in New Hampshire.
“Tonight, we made history,” Mr. Romney told hundreds of cheering supporters shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. and exit polls declared him the winner. “Tomorrow, we go back to work.”
With nearly all votes counted, Mr. Romney had 38.4 percent, comfortably ahead of Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who was running a strong second with 23.3 percent. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who campaigned here nonstop in recent months, finished third with 16.7 percent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania were in a tight battle for fourth place at just under 10 percent, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who barely campaigned here, garnering less than 1 percent.
Mr. Romney, who won the Iowa caucuses by a far more narrow margin a week ago, focused his victory speech largely on President Obama, telling supporters that Mr. Obama “has run out of ideas, and how he’s running out of excuses.”
“This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation,” Mr. Romney said. “This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. Our campaign is about more than replacing a president; it is about saving the soul of America.”
“I consider any win a win, but this is a good win,” Mr. Bass told The Washington Times. “It gives him a bump going into South Carolina.”
Mr. Romney became the first Republican non-incumbent to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. His winning total was on target to substantially eclipse the 32 percent he received in 2008 in New Hampshire, when he finished second in the GOP primary to Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a result that helped drive him from the race.
Despite the result, all of Mr. Romney’s major opponents said they would carry on the fight at least through South Carolina.
Mr. Paul, the 76-year-old libertarian who attracts significant support from young voters, was performing far better here than he did in 2008, when he received only 8 percent of the primary vote.
“He certainly had a clear-cut victory, but we’re nibbling at his heels,” Mr. Paul told supporters. “We had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight. There’s no way they’re going to stop the momentum we have started.”
Mr. Huntsman said his third-place finish would allow him to carry on.
“I think we’re in the hunt,” Mr. Huntsman said. “I’d say third place is a ticket to ride. Hello, South Carolina!”
The election results provided disappointing showings for both Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum, who argued that they were the true conservatives in the field. Mr. Gingrich was running a close race for fourth at 10 percent with Mr. Santorum, who failed to capitalize on the momentum from his second-place finish in Iowa, where he lost to Mr. Romney by only eight votes.
“We knew it would be tough,” Mr. Santorum said. “We are going to go on to South Carolina. We have an opportunity to be the true conservative. We can win this race.”
Mr. Gingrich said he, too, would continue to campaign.
“It is doable,” Mr. Gingrich told supporters. “It is a daunting challenge. I will do everything I can to win the opportunity to represent you this fall.”
Early exit polls showed that 60 percent of the voters in the GOP primary described themselves as moderate or liberal on social issues. In Iowa, by contrast, nearly half of all caucus-goers described themselves as “very conservative.”
Mr. Romney, who governed in neighboring Massachusetts, triumphed in his political backyard in spite of increasingly harsh attacks in the final days of the New Hampshire contest, especially by Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry, who accused him of “looting” companies and leaving behind broken families as CEO of Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Mr. Romney added fuel to the debate Monday when, advocating for the ability of people to switch health insurers, he said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
The sniping pained many conservatives, who worried that GOP candidates were attacking free-market capitalism and giving Democrats valuable ammunition. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh criticized Mr. Gingrich on his radio program, saying, “This is not the kind of stuff you want said by Republicans. I mean, even the establishment Republicans don’t go after conservatives this way.”
Mr. Romney’s GOP rivals also challenged his record as governor of Massachusetts, arguing that his support of a state-based universal health care program, gun control and tax increases belied his claim to be a conservative.
On the Democratic ballot in New Hampshire, President Obama had no serious opposition, but did run a full-page ad in the state’s largest newspaper touting his 2012 re-election bid.
Mr. Romney now rides the momentum of two consecutive victories into South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21, where he faces a tougher slog. A group supporting Mr. Gingrich will begin airing ads there Wednesday blasting Mr. Romney as a corporate raider “playing the system for a quick buck.”
“In a sense if there is a clear distinction with Santorum it is that I actually know how to build a nationwide campaign,” Mr. Gingrich said. “He lost Pennsylvania by the largest margin in the history of the state.”
At the Webster Elementary School polling place in Manchester, a massive media horde engulfed Mr. Huntsman as he arrived with his wife around noon. Police, including two atop black horses, worked to control the situation.
The former Utah governor shook hands with potential supporters, while Romney supporters chanted “Go Mitt, Go!” and called out “Who’s Obama’s boy? Jonny” — a shot at Mr. Huntsman’s service as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
On his way into cast his vote, Pat Austin, 28, from Manchester, told The Washington Times that he was supporting Mr. Romney, for the second time in as many Republican presidential primaries.
“I kind of view myself as more as a moderate than a conservative,” Mr. Austin said. He added that some Republicans have gone too far to the right on social issues and that some of Mr. Romney’s rivals are leveling disingenuous attacks against him.
He said of Mr. Romney’s time at Bain Capital: “That’s what you’re supposed to do, is make businesses more profitable.”
“I think he’s the best candidate,” Mr. Perreault said. “I think he is going to beat Barack Obama. He combines political experience with free-enterprise experience.”
“He comes across as being bought and too rehearsed,” the 64-year-old said. Mr. Huntsman, he argued, is someone he can “trust.”
Mr. McCarthy also said that he’ll be happy when the primary is over. “This place turns into a zoo every four years,” the 39-year-old said.
Andy Kushner, 60, agreed, saying she will be “thrilled” when it’s over.
“I can’t wait not to get any more phone calls. They’ve been constant,” she said.
At the Green Street Community Center polling station in Concord, the state capital, several voters said Mr. Huntsman had earned their support.
“He appears to be the grown-up in the room,” said Fred Burgess, a retiree from Concord. “I think he relates to regular folks like us.”