Mitt Romney decisively won New Hampshire's Republican primary Tuesday, firmly establishing him as the favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.

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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Mitt Romney decisively won New Hampshire’s Republican primary Tuesday, firmly establishing him as the favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination.

In doing so, the former Massachusetts governor became the first GOP nonincumbent to win both Iowa and New Hampshire’s early contests. That gives him significant momentum as the campaign turns south, with the next primary Jan. 21 in South Carolina.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who drew the campaign’s most energetic crowds, finished second in the nation’s first secret-ballot test. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa’s caucuses last week to campaign here, was a solid third. Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who fell eight votes short of upsetting Romney in Iowa, tumbled all the way to fifth, behind former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

In a victory speech at Southern New Hampshire University, Romney drew sharp contrasts with President Obama.

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“The president has run out of ideas,” Romney said. “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.”

Paul later vowed to keep up his challenge. “I called Gov. Romney … and congratulated him,” he said. “He certainly had a clear-cut victory, but we’re nibbling at his heels.”

For his part, Huntsman declared: “Ladies and gentlemen — I think we’re in the hunt. … I’d say third place is a ticket to ride. … Hello, South Carolina!”

While Romney heads out of New Hampshire on a probable march to the nomination, scars and weaknesses could lead him to limp weakly into a general-election against Obama.

On the plus side, his back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire were unprecedented; anti-Romney conservatives are as divided as ever; and polls signal he could win both South Carolina and Florida (Jan. 31) against that fractured opposition. That probably would clinch the nomination.

Yet, Romney received an often-tepid response, even in his New England backyard. He now faces a blistering ad assault that could hurt him among moderates and independents. And he’s shown a tendency to utter politically tone-deaf quotes.

“He’s pretty much had it his way so far,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College in New York. “He’s not very strong for a front-runner who could be on the verge of locking up the nomination.”

Romney and his top aides are confident he’ll rally more Republicans as he campaigns through the primaries in South Carolina and Florida. “Winning begets winning,” one top adviser said.

They also have the only campaign machinery equipped for a state-by-state slog, if necessary. Paul, for example, is saving money by largely conceding Florida.

Conservative voters, meanwhile, remain divided among the other candidates. None of those rivals shows any sign of breaking out from the rest of the pack.

Santorum, for example, failed to build on his close Iowa finish with enough of a vote in New Hampshire to scare anyone else off. He will appeal to South Carolina’s evangelicals but cannot replicate the long courtship that he used in Iowa, where he spent 105 days leading up to the caucuses.

Similarly, Huntsman cannot match the 66 days he spent in New Hampshire.

Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry also will contend for South Carolina’s conservative vote — good news for Romney, because they split his opposition.

Romney also can think ahead, thanks to his bankroll and deep organization. He is reaching out by mail and robo-calls to many of the 410,000 Florida Republicans who have requested early ballots. He is also expected to start advertising on Spanish-language media in Miami-Dade County.

And, as happened in Iowa, the independent pro-Romney group Restore Our Future is already hitting mailboxes with pamphlets slamming Gingrich.

For all those strengths, Romney still heads into the next phase of the race with some exposed weaknesses.

First, New Hampshire Republicans often were unenthusiastic about him. His town-hall meetings often were flat, and many voters said they would vote for him, but without passion.

“Very few people actually like Romney,” said Tim Fortier, a car salesman from Hollis. “If he’s the nominee, people will hold their nose and vote for him, but you’d be amazed how little enthusiasm there is for the guy.”

“There’s not a lot of passion there,” Miringoff agreed.

Romney also created an enemy when he and a pro-Romney super PAC buried Gingrich under an avalanche of negative ads in Iowa.

Gingrich now is waging a scorched-Mitt campaign backed by cash to a pro-Gingrich group from a Las Vegas casino magnate. Winning our Future is planning $3.4 million worth of ads that rip Romney’s work at Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that helped bankroll successful business but also drove layoffs and bankruptcies at other firms.

Finally, after 15 disciplined performances in debates, Romney has made several verbal missteps that fed his image as a rich elitist far from the working class.

In a Sunday debate, he suggested that only wealthy people should run for public office. On Monday, he set off a firestorm with the way he argued that people should have the right to “fire” a health-insurance company, saying, “I like being able to fire people.”

McClatchy Newspapers reporter David Lightman contributed to this report.

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