Last night was vindication for Mitt Romney as the former Massachusetts governor claimed nearly 40 percent of the vote; Texas Congressman Ron Paul took second with 23 percent.
"Thank you New Hampshire. Tonight we made history," said Romney.
Candidates always say that, but Romney did make history: The former Massachusetts governor is the first non-incumbent to win both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Romney did so with strong statewide support from GOP regulars. In a race with five major candidates, exit polls suggest Romney collected fully half the votes cast by registered Republicans.
“We made a commitment to the ground here,” said Jim Merrill.
Merrill managed Romney’s state effort four years ago. He was Romney’s top local consultant this time around. Merrill says team Romney never really stopped working New Hampshire, and that work paid off. Romney racked up big votes in areas well outside his 2008 base of support in Rockingham and Hillsborough counties.
“Mitt Romney is winning Concord; Mitt Romney is winning Keene. Now he’s winning Tuftonboro, Meredith, so we are truly enthused with the scope of the victory and the substance of it – where we are winning,” he said.
Ron Paul also expanded his electoral footprint from 2008.
"I sort of have to chuckle when they describe you and me as dangerous. That’s one thing they are telling the truth, because we are dangerous to the status quo of this country," said Paul.
The Texas congressman won 8 percent of the vote four years ago. This time Paul earned 23 percent, carrying numerous small rural towns, and Coos county. According to exit polls, Paul also enjoyed the most support from independents voters. Charlie McFremmen of Manchester says Paul’s strong showing ensures he will remain part of the discussion for the long haul.
"More and more people will hear the idea of liberty and will know that it rings true in their hearts and minds and will get behind Ron Paul just like we have," he said.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finished in third with 17 percent, was also quick to claim last night would help him take his message past New Hampshire.
"I’d say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman," Huntsman said.
Huntsman had better ride fast; he’s polling in low single digits on South Carolina. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are also looking south for a boost in their fortunes. South Carolina could not be more important for Rick Perry. He drew 1 percent of the vote here after writing off New Hampshire. But Romney is banking on his big win in New Hampshire last night, and his big bankroll – he reportedly raised $25 million in the fourth quarter alone-- will put him in position to take on President Obama..
"Tonight we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time," said Romney.
Since 1980, the winner of the South Carolina primary has gone on to claim the Republican nomination.