MANCHESTER, NH — Mitt Romney dominated the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday as networks called his victory almost immediately after the polls closed.
“Tonight we made history!” he said to the cheering crowd at his victory party in Manchester.
In a lucky break for Romney, Ron Paul was quickly called as a distant second, ensuring that none of the candidates who the Romney camp is most concerned about — mainly Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — will leave the state with strong momentum. Despite a late boost in the polls, Huntsman appeared poised to take third place, a disappointing and almost certainly fatal result for a candidate who staked his entire campaign on a strong showing in the state. Nonetheless, he told his supporters he wasn’t giving up yet.
“I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “Hello South Carolina!”
For Romney, the vote couldn’t have come soon enough. In the final days of the race his rivals, especially Gingrich, unloaded a wave of brutal attacks targeting Bain Capital’s history of downsizing workers. With a helping hand from Democrats, the story dominated local and national news coverage by Tuesday, drawing a panicked response from conservative commentators who fear that Romney’s rivals are reinforcing Obama’s general election talking points.
Romney tackled the issue head on in his victory speech, accusing the other candidates of threatening the GOP’s ultimate goal of retaking the White House.
“Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial,” he said. “In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him.”
He added: “We have to offer an alternative vision. I stand ready to lead us down a different path where we’re lifted up by our desire to succeed not dragged down by our resentment of success.”
Romney didn’t help his case with a series of quotes that, fairly or not, his opponents eagerly cited in order to call attention to his wealthy background. First he told an audience that he knew what it was like to worry whether he’d get a pink slip, a head scratcher given Romney’s career arc as a child of privilege who earned two Harvard degrees en route to a life as a high-profiled private equity CEO. Then, while discussing the importance of flexibility in choosing a health care provider, he uttered the already infamous line, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
Gingrich’s primary party in Manchester was sparsely populated by actual New Hampshire Newt supporters on Tuesday night as a band played 1970s hits in between breaks to listen to CNN coverage. Media and political tourists dominated the crowd and many of his supporters had come in from out of state. But the hardcore that showed indicated they were plenty happy to see Gingrich confront Romney over Bain, especially given the negative attacks lobbed at their candidate by pro-Romney groups first.
“I’m uncomfortable with dirty politics, but he’s shown he wants to be positive and was attacked relentlessly,” Gary Hensley, who voted for Gingrich earlier that day, told TPM. “And there’s nothing intrinsically dirty about pointing out someone’s record.”
Still, Gingrich and Perry are likely to face enormous pressure in the coming days from conservative commentators to at the very least tone down the “corporate raider” talk if they wants to keep up their flagging campaigns. Michael Royston, a Gingrich volunteer from Connecticut admitted to hearing some blowback from Republicans while phone banking on Tuesday who were concerned Gingrich was on a kamikaze mission against Romney.
“People are talking about his ‘scorched earth’ politics,” he said. “But I kept telling them, Newt is in it to win it.”
Things are unlikely to get any friendlier in South Carolina, a state that’s hosted some of the ugliest primary fights in recent memory. Billionaire Sheldon Adelson is donating $5 million to a pro-Newt Super PAC that’s planning to run a short film skewering Romney’s Bain career in the harshest possible way. And Rick Perry, who did not compete in New Hampshire this week, is already previewing plenty of rough attacks of his own, referring to Bain Capital as a “vulture” on Tuesday.
“They swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton,” Perry said.
After broadcasting Romney’s victory speech on FOX News in Columbia, South Carolina on Tuesday night, two of the next three ads were attacks targeting the frontrunner: a spot from Paul and another from Gingrich accusing Romney of pursuing “pro-abortion” policies as governor.
But there are signs that the tide may be turning. In stark contrast to Gingrich’s jarringly combative Iowa caucus speech, he refrained from attacking any of his rivals on Tuesday night, by name or otherwise. Could this be the first step towards disarming a campaign that’s on the verge of going nuclear?
Romney can claim some momentum from his New Hampshire showing. A big South Carolina win could go a long way to cut the primary short, preventing a long slog through the mud that could easily continue through Super Tuesday and lend more bipartisan credibility to Democrats’ anti-Romney messaging. Unlike what was until recently the dominant critique of Romney on the right — that he isn’t conservative enough to Republican voters’ liking, the notion that Romney is a callous Gordon Gekko type will be a critical part of Democratic strategy should he secure the nomination.
The big question now is how far Gingrich et al are willing to go before they decide they either can’t win or it isn’t worth damaging their standing with the party to continue lobbing bombs at the likely nominee.
Watch his speech below:
Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed to this report from Columbia, SC.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.