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David Usborne: New Hampshire winner Mitt the man to beat, but the mudslinging has just begun

MITT Romney, trying for a second time around to make it all the way to his party’s presidential nod and thereafter to the White House, swept to victory in the New Hampshire primary; a win that makes him the clear front-runner going into the next nominating contests

Mr Romney took 39pc of the vote, thus becoming the first Republican who is not a White House incumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in a party nomination contest.

It was a big night meanwhile for Ron Paul, whose conservative libertarianism, including an isolationist foreign policy and a transfer of powers from the federal to states level, brought him to a decent second place here with 23 per cent of the votes. It will be probably be his high watermark, however.

More problematic is the position of Jon Huntsman, the moderate former Utah governor, who came third with 17 per cent. Supporters had been hoping he would lift off belatedly by placing a good second.

Mr Huntsman declared at his victory rally that he had a “ticket to ride” into South Carolina which votes on 21 January and thereafter into Florida. However he is polling very poorly in both states. “Huntsman is really fooling himself,” declared Larry Sabato, the directly of political studies at the University of Virginia.

Mr Romney, who looks more and more like the ‘competent candidate’, delivered a confident but oddly clipped victory speech which turned in part on how he intended to stop Mr Obama from allowing America to become like Europe. “Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed President,” he said. “The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope.”

The president, Mr Romney said, “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity. This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.”

Mr Obama’s love of contrasting Europe with what he expects of America is a key theme of his campaign, born out of a desire to link Mr Obama in voters’ minds with the travails of Greece and Italy. It is “because Europe in the eyes of Americans has lost its way and can’t get out of its own way in terms of the economy,” former White House Chief of Staff and Romney supporter, John Sununu, told the Independent.

For all the celebrating in Camp Romney last night, the mudslinging that marked the last hours of the race, most of it aimed at him, is set only to get fiercer as the focus shifts to South Carolina, a state likely to be less friendly to the moderate-leaning former Governor of Massachusetts.

Over recent days, he was bombarded by his rivals for his role as chief executive of the private-equity firm Bain Capital and ridiculed for saying he “likes” to fire people. Even as he held a baby in a throng outside a polling station yesterday, a person in the crowed yelled: “Are you going to fire the baby, too?”

Due to touch down in Columbia, South Carolina, later today, Mr Romney will be met by a blast of hostile advertising put together at a cost of $3.4m (£2.2m) by an independent group supporting one of his rivals, Newt Gingrich.

The expected Gingrich barrage includes a spot attacking Mr Romney for allegedly shifting positions on abortion. “What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his pro-abortion position to pro-life? He governed pro-abortion,” an announcer says. “He can’t be trusted.”

Mr Gingrich scored a disappointing fourth place. That left Rick Santorum, the close runner up in Iowa, in fifth slot. Both men were striving to emerge as the best conservative alternative Mr Romney. Campaigning hard in South Carolina but barely noticed in New Hampshire is Governor Rick Perry of Texas.

Yesterday, Mr Gingrich defended his aggressiveness on Mr Romney. “If somebody’s going to crumble, they better crumble before the nomination,” Mr Gingrich said, a day after bluntly accusing Mr Romney of “looting” companies at Bain. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?” At a South Carolina rally, a blustering Mr Perry branded people working for Bain as “vultures”.

New Hampshire will be an important swing state in the general election later this year and the bloodletting here was seen as a boon for President Barack Obama. While it was a given that Democrats would go after Mr Romney for his years at Bain and portray him as a corporate villain, few expected that members of his own party would take the same seemingly anti-capitalist tack.

It was a shift that did not sit well with Mr Romney’s supporters. “It bothers me that people don’t have their facts straight about how our economy actually works and what it takes to make companies profitable,” said Sam Gangwer, 46, a property manager who attended a final Romney rally in Bedford, New Hampshire. “Everyone has to survive and companies survive with proper management.”

Also awaiting Mr Romney in South Carolina is a 27-minute documentary purchased by the pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future political committee. The piece is about four companies that were bought by Bain Capital under Mr Romney’s watch and then closed down at cost of hundreds of jobs.

Independent News Service