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Mitt's moment

'Romney makes good on second chance; Paul, Huntsman follow behind'

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the 2012 New Hampshire Republican presidential primary yesterday, succeeding where he failed in 2008 and besting his nearest opponent by 16 points, despite a late barrage of fierce criticism from his competitors. He was buoyed by voters whose main agenda was defeating President Obama in November. Romney, they said, had the best shot.

"Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow we go back to work," Romney told supporters in an early evening victory speech. "The president has run out of ideas. Now he's running out of excuses."

But with much of the Republican electorate still apparently unconvinced about Romney, perhaps more significant was the race for second and third place. Those spots went to Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman.

In a tight race for fourth place were former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former U.S. senator Rick Santorum - candidates who both enjoyed a brief flurry of popularity before most voters ultimately chose someone else. Coming in last among the major candidates was Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who spent little time in New Hampshire and finished poorly in last week's Iowa caucuses.

At the polls, many voters seemed in a pragmatic mood. Maleeka Lloyd of Concord, for instance, cast her ballot for Romney. "He is the only one who can beat Obama," she said.

And some voters rewarded those who paid homage to the state's first-in-the-nation election tradition. Deborah Woods, 56, of Concord, was a Huntsman voter. "I really appreciated all the time he spent in the state," she said.

In the months leading up to the New Hampshire vote, Romney never lost his lead in statewide polling. Some showed him likely to win as much as 40 percent of the vote. The race tightened in the final days of the race as New Hampshire voters - notoriously slow to commit to a candidate - made up their minds. Romney's competitors turned their sights on him in the final hours of the campaign, portraying him as a ruthless profit-seeker who laid off workers in the 1980s and '90s while running the venture capital firm Bain Capital.

When he stumbled on Monday in a comment about health insurance - saying that he liked being able to fire people - his opponents gleefully pounced.

With 92 percent of the votes tallied, Romney had captured 39 percent. Paul had 23 percent, Huntsman 17, Gingrich 9, Santorum 9, and Perry just 1 percent.

In the Concord area, most communities went for Romney - but there were exceptions. In Boscawen, Paul beat Romney by seven votes. He also beat him in Pittsfield, Chichester, Epsom, Webster and New Hampton. Huntsman carried Canterbury, 197-140, over Romney, and beat Romney by a single vote in Henniker.

There was also a Democratic ballot yesterday. Obama had no serious competition, but the party encouraged voters to participate and send a strong message of support. In Concord, there were actually more votes cast for Obama on the Democratic side than there were Republican votes for Romney.

Even before the polls had closed, activists and commentators were speculating on what comes next. Will any of the candidates fold up their campaigns after New Hampshire? Will the sharp criticism of Romney by his opponents escalate - and will he be able to counter it? Will Huntsman be able to capitalize on his third-place showing?

Last night's election marked the end of a New Hampshire campaign that differed starkly from most of those that came before. Because of Romney's formidable campaign apparatus, bank account and familiarity with New Hampshire, his opponents were slow to join the race. Because so much campaigning was done via nationally televised debates and on the talk shows of Fox TV, New Hampshire voters had less face-to-face interaction with the candidates than in years past. And because they calculated that they would do better in states with more socially conservative voters, some candidates chose not to compete seriously here.

Even the weather was strange: Unless they were here over Halloween, few candidates actually had to campaign through the legendary snows of New Hampshire.

Some potential Republican candidates - Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Chris Christie - teased the voters for months but ultimately didn't run. Some actual candidates vanished before Election Day: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty.

 Non-Romney

When the field finally coalesced, the race became largely a competition among the other candidates to present voters a non-Romney alternative. And while there weren't enormous differences on the issues, the candidates presented a broad range of personalities and campaign dramas. Consider:

• Perry drew intense interest when he first entered the race, but a series of publicized gaffes quickly gave voters pause. And he spent scant time in New Hampshire, making it difficult for voters here to connect with him. After a poor showing in Iowa, it briefly seemed as if Perry might drop out altogether. A day later, he was back - and headed to South Carolina, where he calculated his chances might be greater than here. New Hampshire voters barely paid attention to him at the polls.

• For months, no one was paying much attention to Santorum in New Hampshire. His brand of social conservatism, after all, was less likely to play well here than elsewhere. But after he came close to beating Romney in Iowa, there was a frenzy of interest in his campaign - interest that included hecklers, an international media scrum and a testy exchange with college students about gay marriage. In the end, however, it didn't last; his campaign in New Hampshire ultimately fell short.

"We knew it would be tough," Santorum told supporters last night in Manchester, but he defended his decision to campaign in New Hampshire. "We wanted to respect the process," he said.

Santorum vowed to continue, assuring the crowd that his economic message focused on manufacturing jobs would resonate in blue-collar swing states like Ohio and his home state of Pennsylvania.

• Gingrich, who had the full-throated support of the New Hampshire Union Leader, spent a long stretch of the campaign as the candidate who refused to criticize his Republican opponents - as unlikely as that sometimes seemed, given his combative persona when he was speaker of the House. But after supporters of Romney spent big on anti-Gingrich ads in Iowa, he changed his tune. National reporters characterized Gingrich as a candidate on a suicide mission: eager to take Romney down, even if he couldn't win the nomination himself.

At his election night party, he made clear his campaign would continue.

"I'm asking each of you not to slow down," Gingrich told his supporters. "The next couple of days, make a list of every person you know in South Carolina, every person you know in Florida, because those are the next two great contests."

• Huntsman ran the most classic campaign of all: holding scads of question-and-answer events at town halls across the state. He ignored the Iowa contest altogether, repeating New Hampshire's famous putdown: Iowa picks corn; New Hampshire picks presidents. But until the very last week, Huntsman's efforts seemed to hardly make a ripple. He found his voice over the weekend, portraying his work as ambassador to China for the Obama administration as patriotic - and Romney's criticism of it as unseemly.

Last night, Huntman stood in front of a sign with the words of his new slogan: Country First. He seemed delighted with third place. "Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt," he said.

• Paul, at 76 by far the oldest candidate of the bunch, found enthusiastic support among young voters, many of whom liked his anti-war and libertarian positions.

Elena Martinez, 19, a student at Saint Anselm College, said she voted for Paul - in part because he didn't spend too much time talking about his faith or his family. "I don't think he's insane like the other people," she said. "He's talking about what he wants to do with the economy and his actual plans, not how long you worked for a company or about your personal family life. Like, I don't care. I just want to know what you're going to do to fix the country, and he's been the one telling people what he wants to do."

At his election night party in Manchester, Paul joked about his rivals' critique of his platform as "dangerous."

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

• Romney, whom all the others were trying to beat, was the very picture of a disciplined establishment Republican candidate. He had the campaign infrastructure, he had the money and he rarely wavered from his pro-jobs, anti-Obama message. In Iowa and again in New Hampshire, it worked - even as the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movements tried to rally public opinion against the status quo.

His supporters said they liked his business experience - and they thought he had the best chance of success.

Jim MacEachern, a manager for a high-tech firm, supported Romney in 2007 and has been waiting since then for the chance to vote for him again.

"That is not just a Republican election," he said outside a polling place in Derry. "We'll have to attract independents. The ultimate goal is to beat Barack Obama."

 Finally, excitement

What did the voters make of the race? For months, it seemed, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this year's crop of candidates - especially compared with the riveting contests of 2008, in which Romney competed with John McCain on the Republican side and Hillary Clinton and Obama fought it out for the Democrats.

In the final few weeks, however, when it was suddenly easier to bump into Gingrich on the street or Romney's many sons in a sandwich shop, the buzz began to grow. Journalists arrived from across the globe. Busloads of college kids came to town. There was little else in the newspaper or on TV.

Many voters said they wanted a candidate who could put the economy back on firmer footing. But they drew different conclusions about who was most likely to do so.

Marie Houde, 66, of Henniker, sized up the field and decided Gingrich was the country's only hope. "He's got the experience, and I don't care where he's been; I only care about where he's going," she said. "Our country's in deep doo-doo."

For Laurie Boxbaum, 54, of Hollis, Romney made the most sense - and this from a woman who counted herself among Obama supporters in 2008. Now, she says, the country is headed toward "financial disaster." As for Romney? "I find him just to be an honest man," she said. "A lot of people don't like him. I do."

George Rickley, 65, of Concord, figured Huntsman was most practical. "He's not a wholly owned property. I think he's looking for bipartisan solutions to very complicated problems."

Not everyone, however, seemed certain their vote would make a difference.

Norman Lariviere, 71, of Weare, chose Paul in part because of his emphasis on cutting government spending. "I don't know if he's got a chance or not," he acknowledged. "I don't know if I wasted my vote or not."

This morning, the campaign has moved on to South Carolina. New Hampshire voters are getting back to real life, the Legislature will again take center stage in Concord, and snow is in the forecast for tomorrow.

"It's nice that all of the attention is focused here," said Fred Pilch, 84, of Hopkinton, "but by at least Thursday it'll all be over, and they'll forget about us."

(Felice Belman can be reached at 369-3370 or fbelman@cmonitor.com. Staff writers Molly A.K. Connors, Ben Leubsdorf, Sarah Palermo and Maddie Hanna contributed to this report. Students from American University who contributed to voters' voices coverage were Douglas Bell, Hannah Blatt, Heather Caygle, Stefanie Dazio, Joshua Lapidus, Hayley Miller, Amanda Muscavage, Elaura Rifkin, Kelli Sakalousky, David Schultz, Meagan Shamberger, Allison Terry and Forrest Young.)

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