Mitt Romney was projected as the winner of New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, according to the Associated Press, giving the former Massachusetts governor a sweep of the first two critical tests in the GOP nominating contest.
Romney’s presumptive victory, based on votes and exit polls, was expected for a candidate who has campaigned aggressively in this state that borders his home turf. After eking out a narrow win in last week’s Iowa caucuses, Romney hoped a bigger victory here could ramp up his momentum heading into the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21, where his conservative credentials could face their stiffest test.
Romney’s GOP rivals attacked his record in the days leading up to the New Hampshire vote, and they were jockeying for a finish that could provide a launching pad to defeat the front-runner in 11 days. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and former Pennsylvania governor Rick Santorum were battling for second. Santorum finished second to Romney in Iowa.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry skipped New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina.
Throughout the days leading up to the primary, Romney’s rivals attempted to blunt his momentum by stepping up attacks on his record as a venture capitalist, portraying him as a “vulture” who preyed on troubled companies.
In New Hampshire, exit polls showed more independents than in Republican contests in 2008, 2000 or 1996. By party identification, nearly half of early voters say they identify as independents, with more than four in 10 of all voters officially registered as undeclared. And six in 10 voters identified the economy as the most important issue, even in a state whose 5.2 percent unemployment rate is fourth lowest in that nation.
The day was full with attacks on Romney. In campaign appearances and television interviews, Gingrich and Perry took aim at Romney’s role as an executive at Bain Capital, a private equity investment firm, during the 1980s and ’90s.
Gingrich suggested that Romney had “undermined capitalism” while implementing Bain’s “indefensible” business model. Perry, campaigning in South Carolina, likened Romney’s firm to “vultures ... waiting for a company to get sick.”
Huntsman, who has staked his longshot bid for the Republican presidential nomination on a respectable showing in New Hampshire, belittled Romney as a “homeboy” who owed his lead in the polls to his New England ties and his 2003-2007 stint as governor of neighboring Massachusetts.
Hours before polling places closed, a large political action committee affiliated with GOP political guru Karl Rove gave Romney a boost by defending his chances of becoming the Republican nominee. But the American Crossroads super PAC stopped short of endorsing the front-runner.
Romney appeared calm and confident as he greeted voters on Tuesday, even as fallout continued from a spontaneous comment he made Monday to a group of business leaders.
As he held up a baby outside Webster Middle School here, someone shouted repeatedly: “Are you going to fire the baby?” It was a reference to Romney’s remark that he liked being able to “fire people who provide services to me.”
The candidate was talking about health insurers that don’t provide adequate care. But in the final campaign rush of the New Hampshire primary, his opponents tried to use the phrase to strengthen their depiction of Romney as a corporate predator who sought profits at the expense of workers.
“Governor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs,” Huntsman, who polls suggest is enjoying a late surge here, told reporters in Concord on Monday. “It may be that he’s slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that’s a dangerous place to be.”
Gingrich went further, criticizing the type of business Romney engaged in. “Look, I’m for capitalism,” Gingrich said on NBC’s “Today” show. “But if somebody comes in, takes all the money out of your company and then leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions, that’s not traditional capitalism.”
He said on Bloomberg Television, “The question is whether or not these companies were being manipulated by the guys who invest to drain them of their money, leaving behind people who were unemployed.” He added: “Show me somebody who has consistently made money while losing money for workers, and I’ll show you someone who has undermined capitalism.... That’s an indefensible model.”
Perry, who is skipping New Hampshire to focus on the South Carolina primary in 11 days, told a town hall meeting in Fort Mill, S.C., that firms such as Bain Capital were “just vultures” that “loot” other companies. “They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for a company to get sick,” Politico quoted Perry as saying. “And then they swoop in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that and they leave the skeleton.”
A Romney spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, told Politico that Gingrich and Perry “have resorted to desperate attacks on a subject they don’t understand.” Saul said such “attacks on free enterprise” were expected from President Obama and leftist allies, “not from so-called ‘fiscal conservatives.’ ” Gingrich and Perry “seem to think that running against the private sector is the way to revive their floundering campaigns,” she said.
It was impossible to know whether the last-minute attacks would erode Romney’s substantial lead in the New Hampshire polls. But at least one voter said she wasn’t swayed.
“He’s honest, he’s thick-skinned,” said Martha Galanis, 72, a retired office worker who cast her ballot at the McDonough School. “So what if he’s rich. He earned it.”
Romney did not respond directly to the heckler who asked whether he was going to “fire the baby.” But as the long-awaited voting got underway, he was not the only one to face hostility from some of New Hampshire’s notoriously independent voters, or the political junkies who migrate to the state for the primary every four years.
Gingrich, at the same polling station, found himself shouted down by a crowd that included many supporters of President Obama. Both Romney and Gingrich were overwhelmed by the crush of reporters standing by to document the mayhem.
Romney spent much of Monday explaining and defending his role as co-founder and chief executive of Bain Capital, which invested in start-ups such as Staples, an office supplies superstore, but also oversaw large-scale job losses through leveraged buyouts and restructuring.
“Free enterprise will be on trial,” Romney told reporters in Hudson. “I thought it was going to came from the president, from the Democrats on the left, but instead it’s coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others. And that’s just part of the process. I’m not worried about that. I’ve got broad shoulders.”
Romney came under siege in a debate Sunday over his work at Bain, and his comment Monday seemed to give his opponents an opening to try to turn his greatest asset — that he would be uniquely skilled at creating jobs and turning around the nation’s economy — into a liability. It also provided evidence for those trying to cast Romney as out of touch with the struggles of working Americans.
The battle over Bain is certain to intensify as the race moves to South Carolina, where independent groups that support Romney and Gingrich are planning multimillion-dollar TV ad blitzes.
It’s a fight that Gingrich, in particular, is eager to have. “It’s a legitimate question about exactly what happened: Where did the money go? Who got the money? What happened to the people involved?” he told reporters. “He’s the one who went around and said he has 20 years’ experience — fine. Now let’s talk about the 20 years’ experience.”
Romney waved away the intensifying criticism and tried to project confidence heading into Tuesday’s primary. He joked that he hopes to double the eight-vote margin he had in the Iowa caucuses. “I don’t think I could handle another night like that,” he said.
Nakamura reported from Washington. Staff writers Dan Balz, Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman in New Hampshire contributed to this report.
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