Mitt Romney, former Governor of Massachusetts and frontrunner in the race for the Republican presidential nominee, has won the primary in New Hampshire garnering close to 40 per cent of the vote and a second straight victory after the Iowa caucus last week.

While New Hampshire was widely expected to be one of the easier states for Mr. Romney to capture, all eyes are now on the next primary in South Carolina on January 21, a far more conservative state where the Romney campaign machine may have a harder time convincing voters. Success there may well give him an unassailable lead, said observers.

Libertarian candidate Ron Paul also performed consistent with expectations, and won close to 23 per cent of the vote. Mr. Paul is the only other current candidate who has the national-level campaign infrastructure and finance on a scale similar to Mr. Romney. His supporter base, comprising numerous younger voters, has also acquired the reputation of being a loyal voting bloc that returns consistent polling figures across elections.

In third place was Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah and President Barack Obama's former Ambassador to China. He cornered close to 17 per cent of the vote on the back of more than six months of intense campaigning.

Mr. Huntsman, whose adoption of Chinese and Indian girls was recently attacked by a Paul-linked campaign group, said the third-place result gave him a “ticket to ride” to South Carolina and he would not be dropping out.

As Mr. Romney's lead in New Hampshire became evident, he told supporters on Tuesday night, “Tonight we celebrate. Tomorrow we go back to work.” While he admitted that winning South Carolina would be an “uphill battle,” he also trained his guns on rival and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and also Mr. Obama.

Mr. Romney said, “We expected President Obama to put free enterprise on trial. We were a little surprised to see it coming from Speaker Gingrich.” He was referring to attacks by Mr. Gingrich and others on Mr. Romney's record at private equity firm Bain Capital, where he allegedly laid off numerous workers in companies that his firm bought over.

Governor of Texas Rick Perry, who performed poorly in New Hampshire winning less than one per cent of the vote, similarly accused Mr. Romney of “vulture capitalism” that led to job losses in economically distressed South Carolina. Mr. Romney has also become the prime target of Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, who is one of the most conservative candidates and may be on track for a good showing in South Carolina.

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