Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire Republican U.S. presidential primary on Tuesday by a comfortable margin. The win marked his second straight victory in the race to become his party's choice to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama on Nov. 6.
The former investment firm chief scored the clear victory despite rivals' fierce 11th-hour attacks painting him as a heartless corporate raider who enjoys cutting jobs. Romney's stint as a relatively moderate governor of neighboring Massachusetts has also sparked skepticism from conservatives.
Based on early returns with about 90 percent of the vote counted, U.S. television networks declared Romney the victor with 40 percent of the vote, while Congressman Ron Paul came in second with 23 percent.
Jon Huntsman came in third with 17 percent, Newt Gingrich gathered 10 percent of the votes, Rick Santorum slipped down to 9 percent and Rick Perry gained a meager 1 percent.
Romney addressed a crowd of supporters even before officially winning the race. Flanked by his wife and two sons, Romney stated that the election is not about replacing the president, but about "saving the soul of America."
"My worry will be about saving your job, not saving my own", Romney said.
Romney chastised President Obama for "making the federal government bigger" and pleged to make it "smarter and smaller."
The New Hampshire primary is the second contest in the state-by-state battle for the Republican presidential nomination to face Obama. Romney narrowly won the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, on Jan. 3.
Voters responded to Romney's claim that his private sector experience would help him galvanize the weak U.S. economy.
"I was looking for someone who is smart, knows our country, knows the financial system and how to get the country moving again with jobs," said Eddie Carr, a 77-year-old school bus driver who voted for Romney. "I think it was right to vote for him. I think he can get the country going."
Paul, a congressman from Texas known for his libertarian views, beat out Jon Huntsman, a moderate former U.S. ambassador to China, for second place in New Hampshire, the small New England state known for its independent streak and outsized role in presidential campaigns. Huntsman had about 17 percent of the vote.
Paul also spoke to his supporters, saying "there is no chance they are going to stop the momentum we started."
Romney became the first Republican who is not an incumbent president to win the first two early voting states, after his slim eight-vote victory over former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum a week ago in the Iowa caucuses.
New Hampshire, Romney's neighboring state, was considered to be "his", since he invested in it heavily after he lost there to John McCain in 2008. South Carolina, where Romney happens to lead also, still gives conservatives a chance to narrow the gap and maybe even challenge his status as a frontrunner.
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