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.