Mitt Romney declared himself the winner of last night's New Hampshire primary within moments of the last polling stations closing after TV stations projected a win that would make him the prohibitive front-runner going into the next nominating contests.
Yet the internecine mudslinging that marked the last hours of the race aimed at Mr Romney is set to intensify as the focus shifts to South Carolina, a state likely to be less friendly to the moderate-leaning former Governor of Massachusetts. Due to touch down in Columbia, South Carolina, later today, he will be met by a blast of hostile advertising put together at a cost of $3.4m (£2.2m) by an independent group supporting one of his rivals, Newt Gingrich.
If the network projections are born out this morning, Mr Romney will become the first Republican who is not a White House incumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in a party nomination contest. The networks pegged libertarian Ron Paul and moderate Jon Huntsman in second and third positions respectively.
And he wasted no time in delivering an attack on the President, saying: "When Barack Obama came to new Hampshire four years ago, he promised to bring people together...today we're faced with a disappointing record of a failed President...the middle class has been crushed. This President has run out ideas, now he is running out of excuses."
The margin of Mr Romney's victory looked solid despite him being bombarded by rivals for his role as chief executive of the private-equity firm Bain Capital and ridiculed for saying he "likes" to fire people. Even as he held a baby in a throng outside a polling station yesterday, a bystander yelled: "Are you going to fire the baby, too?"
The expected Gingrich barrage includes a spot attacking Mr Romney for allegedly shifting positions on abortion. "What happened after Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney changed his pro-abortion position to pro-life? He governed pro-abortion," an announcer says. "He can't be trusted."
Mr Gingrich was last night locked in a battle for disappointing fourth place here with Rick Santorum, the close runner up in Iowa. Both are striving to emerge as the best conservative alternative to Mr Romney. Campaigning hard in South Carolina, but barely noticed in New Hampshire, is Governor Rick Perry of Texas. Yesterday, Mr Gingrich defended the aggression of his tactics. "If somebody's going to crumble, they better crumble before the nomination," he said, a day after accusing Mr Romney of "looting" companies at Bain. "Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?" At a South Carolina rally, a blustering Mr Perry branded people working for Bain as "vultures".
Mr Huntsman, a former Utah Governor and ambassador to China for President Obama, mostly sought to stay above the crossfire in recent days. He did not compete in the Iowa caucuses. He may have just done well enough in New Hampshire to remain in the race.
New Hampshire will be an important swing state in the general election later this year and the bloodletting here was seen as a boon for President Obama. While it was a given that Democrats would go after Mr Romney for his years at Bain, few expected that members of his own party would take the same seemingly anti-capitalist tack.
Mitt Romney last night spoke in Manchester, New Hampshire. The following remarks were prepared for delivery:
Thank you, New Hampshire! Tonight, we made history!
This state has always been a special place for our family. Ann and I made a home here and we've filled it with great memories of our children and grandchildren. And this Granite State moment is one we will always remember.
Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work.
We remember when Barack Obama came to New Hampshire four years ago.
He promised to bring people together.
He promised to change the broken system in Washington.
He promised to improve our nation.
Those were the days of lofty promises made by a hopeful candidate. Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed President. The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven’t offered much hope.
The middle class has been crushed. Nearly 24 million of our fellow Americans are still out of work, struggling to find work, or have just stopped looking. The median income has dropped 10% in four years. Soldiers returning from the front lines are waiting in unemployment lines. Our debt is too high and our opportunities too few.
And this President wakes up every morning, looks out across America and is proud to announce, “It could be worse.”
It could be worse? Is that what it means to be an American? It could be worse?
Of course not.
What defines us as Americans is our unwavering conviction that we know it must be better.
That conviction guides our campaign. It has rallied millions of Americans in every corner of this country to our cause.
Over the last six months, I’ve listened to anxious voices in town meetings and visited with students and soldiers. In break rooms and living rooms, I’ve heard stories of families getting by on less, of carefully planned retirements now replaced by jobs at minimum wage. But even now, amidst the worst economy since the Great Depression, I’ve rarely heard a refrain of hopelessness.
Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times. We still believe in the hope, the promise, and the dream of America. We still believe in that shining city on a hill.
We know that the future of this country is better than 8 or 9% unemployment.
It is better than $15 trillion in debt.
It is better than the misguided policies and broken promises of the last three years – and the failed leadership of one man.
The President has run out of ideas. Now, he’s running out of excuses. 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.
President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. 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. In these difficult times, we cannot abandon the core values that define us as unique -- We are One Nation, Under God.
Make no mistake, in this campaign, I will offer the American ideals of economic freedom a clear and unapologetic defense.
Our campaign is about more than replacing a President; it is about saving the soul of America. This election is a choice between two very different destinies.
President Obama wants to “fundamentally transform” America. We want to restore America to the founding principles that made this country great.
He wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society. We want to ensure that we remain a free and prosperous land of opportunity.
This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe; we look to the cities and small towns of America.
This President puts his faith in government. We put our faith in the American people.
He is making the federal government bigger, burdensome, and bloated. I will make it simpler, smaller, and smarter.
He raised the national debt. I will cut, cap, and balance the budget.
He enacted job-killing regulations; I’ll eliminate them.
He lost our AAA credit rating; I’ll restore it.
He passed Obamacare; I’ll repeal it.
When it comes to the economy, my highest priority as President will be worrying about your job, not saving my own.
Internationally, President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. He believes America’s role as leader in the world is a thing of the past. I believe a strong America must – and will – lead the future.
He doesn’t see the need for overwhelming American military superiority. I will insist on a military so powerful no one would think of challenging it.
He chastises friends like Israel; I’ll stand with our friends.
He apologizes for America; I will never apologize for the greatest nation in the history of the Earth.
Our plans protect freedom and opportunity, and our blueprint is the Constitution of the United States.
The path I lay out is not one paved with ever increasing government checks and cradle-to-grave assurances that government will always be the solution. If this election is a bidding war for who can promise more benefits, then I’m not your President. You have that President today.
But if you want to make this election about restoring American greatness, then I hope you will join us.
If you believe the disappointments of the last few years are a detour, not our destiny, then I am asking for your vote.
I’m asking each of you to remember how special it is to be an American.
I want you to remember what it was like to be hopeful and excited about the future, not to dread each new headline.
I want you to remember when you spent more time dreaming about where to send your kids to college than wondering how to make it to the next paycheck.
I want you to remember when you weren’t afraid to look at your retirement savings or the price at the pump.
I want you to remember when our White House reflected the best of who we are, not the worst of what Europe has become.
That America is still out there. We still believe in that America.
We still believe in the America that is a land of opportunity and a beacon of freedom. We believe in the America that challenges each of us to be better and bigger than ourselves.
This election, let’s fight for the America we love. We believe in America.
Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.