Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took a major step Tuesday toward winning the Republican Party?s presidential nomination with a convincing victory in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Romney easily defeated five Republican rivals one week after a narrow win in the Iowa caucuses and appears to be a strong favorite to be the Republican challenger against President Barack Obama in the November election.
Romney was clearly excited when he addressed supporters at a victory celebration in Manchester.
?Thank you, New Hampshire! Tonight we made history,? he said.
Romney was an easy winner in New Hampshire - the first in the nation presidential primary, historically an important test for those seeking the White House.
In his victory speech, Romney focused less on his Republican rivals and highlighted his differences with President Obama.
?We still believe in the America that is a land of opportunity and a beacon of freedom. We believe in the America that challenges each of us to be better and bigger than ourselves. In this election, let?s go on to fight for the America we love because we believe in America. Thank you so much! God Bless America,? he said.
Texas Representative Ron Paul finished second - a strong showing for a candidate whose focus on smaller government and less U.S. involvement abroad struck a chord with New Hampshire voters.
?But there was another victory tonight. He had a victory. But we have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight,? he said.
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman captured third place in the primary. Huntsman has campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire for the past year.
"Here we sit tonight, with a ticket to ride and move on. Here we go to South Carolina," he said.
Surveys of voters leaving the polls said the economy was the top issue.
John Boghosian of Concord voted for Mitt Romney. Four years ago, his vote went to Barack Obama.
?I voted for the wrong guy last time. I shouldn?t have, but I did,? he said.
Ron Paul had loyal supporters as well. One of them said ?I think he appeals to the common man - the middle class of America - and that is who I am.?
Romney now is in the enviable position of having won the first two presidential contests. But he faces his toughest test yet on January 21 in the South Carolina primary, where Republican primary voters tend to be more conservative than those in New Hampshire.
Romney has a small lead in the latest polls in South Carolina.
American University political expert Allan Lichtman says a Romney victory there would be a serious blow to his Republican rivals.
?After his first-place finish in New Hampshire, if Mitt Romney can go to a Southern state like South Carolina and win there, I would say the nomination struggle is virtually over. He?s got it wrapped up,? he said.
As the campaign moves South, Romney can expect intensified attacks from conservatives like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry largely skipped the New Hampshire contest to focus on South Carolina.