Mitt Romney won the Republican New Hampshire primary on Tuesday night, clinching a historic double triumph in the early stages of the party’s presidential nomination contest.
he former Massachusetts governor was on course to win 36pc of the vote, according to CNN’s exit poll released as voting closed – a lead of 13 percentage points over Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman.
Victory in South Carolina on January 21 would put the former Massachusetts governor within touching distance of becoming the Republican nominee to take on President Barack Obama on Nov 6.
Mr Romney became the first Republican challenger in the modern primary system's 35-year history to win both New Hampshire and the Iowa caucus, establishing a formidable lead in the contest to pick a candidate to face Barack Obama in November's presidential election..
"Tonight, we made history," he told supporters at a victory rally in Manchester, where he promised to "restore America to the founding principles that made this country great".
Denouncing Mr Obama as a "failed president" and looking ahead to the next Republican contest, he added: "Tonight we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time".
Taking firm aim at Mr Obama, he said the president “has run out of ideas, now he’s running out of excuses”.
“This president puts his faith in government, we put our faith in the American people,” said Mr Romney, who appeared more confident and authoritative than he has at any stage of the campaign.
He hit back at criticism from fellow Republicans for saying that he “liked firing people who don’t provide good services”, in the course of an answer that employees should be able to choose their own health insurance.
His rivals have questioned his record as head of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm whose investments and restructuring of companies sometimes led to large job losses but huge profits for its investors.
He warned them against joining Mr Obama and the Democrats in the “politics of envy”.
“We have seen desperate Republicans join him in putting free enterprise on trial. It’s a mistake for our party and our nation,” he said, adding that the country should be lifted up “by desire to succeed, not dragged down by resentment of success”.
Looking ahead to the next contest, he said: “Tonight we are asking the people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire to make 2012 the year he [Obama] runs out of time.”
Republican strategists concede that a third win for Mr Romney in the January 21 primary in South Carolina, where he holds a 10-point poll lead, would make him all-but unbeatable and effectively kill off the contest after three weeks of voting.
However, aides stressed that due to the electoral arithmetic, Mr Romney would not be able to declare victory until May. “This will not be over for months,” Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser, said, before polls closed.
Right-wing conservatives, who are less forgiving of Mr Romney’s formerly moderate social stances, hold more sway in South Carolina than in this relatively liberal state, which neighbours Massachusetts.
Exit polls nonetheless suggested Mr Romney’s margin of victory would not be as wide as his team had hoped, and was slimmer than the 22-point lead he held in opinion polls earlier this month.
Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, claimed yesterday that Mr Romney’s failure to live up to “any reasonable expectation” in a state where he has a home was “the biggest story today”.
“I think it raises questions about his candidacy everywhere else,” said Mr Gingrich, who was last night on course to finish joint fourth with 10 per cent of the vote along with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
John Weaver, the top strategist for Jon Huntsman, Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China, said Mr Romney had been damaged by a week of declining poll ratings. “He is going leave New Hampshire far weaker than when he entered it,” he said.
Mr Gingrich was accused by fellow Republicans of trying to start a Republican civil war that could fatally harm the prospects of whichever candidate ends up facing Mr Obama in November.
Allies of Mr Gingrich have begun broadcasting a half-hour film attacking Mr Romney’s record as a corporate buyout executive as emblematic of the “predator capitalism” that created the economic crisis.
Mr Gingrich also launched a separate advertisement telling voters in South Carolina about the changing stances on abortion of “Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney”. It concluded: “He can’t be trusted.”
Dr Paul’s apparent second-place finish, after he survived the threat of a last-minute surge by Mr Huntsman, gave his loyal supporters hope of a new boost to his libertarian-leaning campaign.
The 76-year-old 'Father of the Tea Party’ had seemed exhausted at recent campaign stops
Third place came as a blow for Mr Huntsman, who had enjoyed rising poll ratings in the past week and was tipped to overtake Dr Paul on election day, but was a better result than seemed likely a week ago.
Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas, was set to finish last with a humiliating one per cent of the vote.