NASHUA, N.H. — Mitt Romney took another big step toward the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, handily winning New Hampshire's primary after showing his biggest political obstacle may be himself.
"Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work," Romney declared in Manchester, N.H., sounding like the nominee as he turned his focus to President Barack Obama.
"The president has run out of ideas. Now, he's running out of excuses," Romney said to cheers. "And 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."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished in second place, ahead of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who had staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire and seemed pleased.
"I'd say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen," Huntsman told supporters in Manchester. "Hello, South Carolina!"
Romney leaves the Granite State looking like the inevitable nominee, but also amid renewed questions about his personal appeal and whether his main asset — business acumen and private-sector experience — is a big vulnerability.
As the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, Romney was the prohibitive favorite to win New Hampshire, but his victory did not come easily.
His opponents have joined Democrats in hammering his leadership of the venture capital firm Bain Capital, depicting Romney as a greedy corporate raider more interested in profits than job creation. And Romney himself in recent days helped feed the knock that he's plastic and insincere.
Unconvincingly, he recounted worrying about getting laid off earlier in his career, and in a debate Saturday, Romney suggested he rarely thought about running for public office, despite multiple campaigns over the past 15 years.
"Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney," scoffed Newt Gingrich.
Critics seized on a comment Romney made Monday, which was taken out of context, about consumers choosing their own health insurance providers: "I like being able to fire people who provide me services."
But even if Romney sustained some bruises, a win is a win. He is the first non-incumbent Republican in modern history to sweep both Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
Next comes the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary where Romney also leads in the polls and will likely continue to benefit from a crowded field of rivals dividing up conservative votes while vying to emerge as the chief Romney alternative.
While former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Gingrich finished in the back of the pack Tuesday, both intend to compete in South Carolina, along with Paul, Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who did not campaign in New Hampshire.
"We're going to go all out to win in South Carolina. We think that's a key state for us," Gingrich told CNN. "And we think that the contrast between a Georgia Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate is pretty dramatic."
South Carolina is poised to live up to its reputation for nasty Republican primary politics over the next 10 days before the attention turns to Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
Gingrich on Tuesday began airing an ad in South Carolina noting that Romney supported abortion rights as governor of Massachusetts. An independent political committee helping Gingrich plans to spend $3 million on South Carolina ads attacking Romney's record with Bain Capital, which in several cases profited off companies that went under.
In South Carolina, where hundreds of people lost jobs at companies acquired by Bain, Perry also ripped Romney's old firm.
"They're just vultures," Perry said Tuesday. "They're vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick, and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that, and they leave the skeleton."
Romney in his victory speech Tuesday night chastised his fellow Republicans for borrowing a line of attack from Democrats.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," Romney said. "This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation. This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path, where we are lifted up by our desire to succeed, not dragged down by a resentment of success."
New Hampshire, which at 1.3 million has roughly the same population as Hillsborough County, allows Democrats and independents to change their registration at the polls, to vote in the Republican primary. Exit polls conducted for the TV networks showed that 47 percent of the Republican voters described themselves as independents and they divided closely between Paul, who won 32 percent, and Romney, who won 29 percent.
Despite rivals criticizing Romney as a moderate who would be a weak general election candidate, the former Massachusetts governor overwhelmingly beat the field among self-described conservatives and among tea party supporters. He won 6 in 10 voters who said their top priority was picking a candidate who can beat Obama.
South Carolina is likely to clarify and cull the field before Florida weighs in. Romney and Paul appear to be the only campaigns with the money and infrastructure to continue as the primary moves past Florida and into February and March.
"We're nibbling at his heels,'' Paul said of Romney on Tuesday night, his second second-place finish in a row. "There is no way that they're going to stop the momentum we have started."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]