MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney won a decisive victory Tuesday in New Hampshire's Republican primary, scoring a solid triumph that firmly establishes him as the favorite to win the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, became the first Republican non-incumbent presidential candidate to win both Iowa's and New Hampshire's early contests. That should give him significant momentum as the campaign turns south, with the next contest on Jan. 21 in South Carolina.
Two Romney challengers made strong showings here in the Republicans' first secret-ballot test — Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who drew the campaign's most energized crowds, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa's caucuses last week to campaign relentlessly here.
With 11 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had 36 percent of the vote. Paul had 25 percent, while Huntsman had 17 percent. Several national news organizations declared Romney the winner and Paul the runner-up, based on analysis of voting trends and exit polls of voters.
Trailing far behind were former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 11 percent and Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, with 10 percent; Santorum could not sustain his momentum after finishing only eight votes behind Romney in Iowa.
Paul maintained his strong libertarian base but was unable to expand it enough to mount a serious threat to Romney; many voters raised questions about Paul's isolationist foreign and anti-war policies. Huntsman appeared to benefit from a surge of independents, who make up more than 40 percent of the state's registered voters.
The candidates now head for South Carolina, where they'll join Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who skipped New Hampshire and is already campaigning hard in the Palmetto State.
Romney will face an ongoing withering attack. On Tuesday, Perry joined what's become a chorus of Romney rivals questioning his work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm he co-founded, which invests money to take over troubled companies and try to restore them to profitability.
Perry said companies like Bain are "vultures," while Gingrich supporters released a 28-minute video attacking Romney as an insensitive corporate raider responsible for thousands of layoffs.
In fact, some Bain takeover targets became successful, while others failed. Romney says that's simply capitalism, that Bain was more successful than not, and that its acquired companies created more jobs than they lost. There is no authoritative public record. As a private company, Bain isn't required to open its books.
Polls show Romney ahead in South Carolina, thanks to the fractured field splitting the conservative vote. Neither Huntsman, who is not seen as a conservative favorite, nor Paul, who is regarded by many conservatives as too extreme on foreign policy, are seen as likely victors there.
But there is an opening for someone to mount a strong challenge to Romney in the South's first Republican contest, especially if conservatives rally behind one alternative to the front-runner.
"Romney's support is going to be soft," said Karen Kedrowski, a professor of political science at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
In New Hampshire, Romney was long the favorite to win big. He has a home here and is well-known for his stewardship of the state next door from 2003 to 2007. But the campaign here also exposed potential trouble for Romney ahead.
Three of his last seven campaign days here were marred by embarrassing performance flaws. On Wednesday, invigorated by his unexpected win in Iowa, Romney faced unexpected hostile questioning at a Manchester rally.
In a debate Sunday, Gingrich blasted Romney for peddling "pious baloney" with his insistence that he's motivated by patriotism and citizenship. Later that day, Romney, the wealthy son of a former Michigan governor and holder of advanced Harvard degrees in law and business, evoked guffaws when he said he, too, had feared getting a pink slip early in his business career.
"I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips — I'm sure he was worried he'd run out of pink slips," Perry quipped.
Romney also came under fire for a line he uttered Monday that became an instant favorite among his critics.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," Romney told a Nashua business group. He was referring to insurers who provide inadequate service, but when taken out of context, the quote played into the hands of his critics.
Perry kept up the heat Tuesday.
Campaigning in Sun City, S.C., he compared Romney and Bain Capital to "vultures" that strip companies and leave workers unemployed.
"They're vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for a company to get sick. And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, and they leave the skeleton," Perry said.
Romney's campaign quickly fired back.
"It is no surprise that, having spent nearly his whole life in government, Gov. Perry has resorted to desperate attacks on a subject he doesn't understand," said spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg.
Romney sustained strength in New Hampshire despite the assaults he endured the past few days. Voters routinely said that while they were not enthusiastic about him, they saw him as the candidate most able to beat President Barack Obama. And they often noted that they were familiar with him.
"Romney was everybody's second choice," said Doug Butler, a Francestown retiree.
Few seemed to have an easy first choice. Exit polls showed that 27 percent of New Hampshire voters made up their minds in the last few days, with 19 percent waiting until Tuesday.
"I don't believe Romney is conservative. But I want someone who can beat Obama," said Bob Valiant, a Chester computer analyst.
Paul's backers remained upbeat. They staged the most energetic rallies, and his support held steady. But Paul faced resistance from voters who had qualms about his vow to disengage the U.S. from foreign entanglements.
"He's wacko on foreign policy," said Butler.