Romney rides luck to New Hampshire

A SQUEAKER of an Iowa victory in hand, Mitt Romney headed last night into the New Hampshire primary — in his own political backyard — insisting that staying power sets him apart from runners-up Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and the rest of the Republican presidential field.

Romney rides luck to New Hampshire

Two rivals already looked shaky — last-place finisher Michele Bachmann pulled out of the battle yesterday and Rick Perry was heading home to Texas to think things over.

Michele Bachmann said she was ending her bid to win the Republican nomination, after she finished sixth out of six candidates.

“The people of Iowa spoke with a very clear voice, so I decided to stand aside,” Bachmann said at an emotional news conference yesterday.

Meanwhile, Romney shrugged off the promise of sharper criticism from his rivals. “I’ve got a big target on me now,” Romney said, adding that criticism does not faze him. “I’ve got broad shoulders. I’m willing to handle it.”

The former Massachusetts governor was declared the winner of the lead-off presidential caucuses in the wee hours of Wednesday by just eight votes, bringing down the curtain on an improbable first act in the campaign to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in the autumn.

Appearing hours after the caucuses had ended, Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn said Romney had 30,015 votes, to 30,007 for Santorum, whose late surge carried him to a near win.

Earlier, Romney added to his already formidable national network by announcing the endorsement of Senator John McCain, who twice won the New Hampshire primary and was the GOP presidential nominee in 2008.

In a sign of the acrimony ahead, Santorum said McCain’s nod was to be expected, and jabbed at his rival. “John is a more moderate member of the Republican team, and I think he fits in with Mitt’s view of the world,” he said.

“Game on,” declared Santorum, after outdistancing several other contenders to emerge as Romney’s unvarnished conservative rival for the primaries yet ahead.

Even before his victory was announced, Romney looked past his GOP rivals and took aim at Obama.

“The gap between his promises four years ago and his performance is as great as anything I’ve ever seen in my life,” he told supporters.

Romney last night portrayed himself as the best foil to Obama and said he had the national campaign team and ample fundraising to endure the march to the selection convention this summer.

“That’s something I think other folks in this race are going to find a little more difficult to do,” he said.

In all, more than 122,000 straw ballots were cast, a record for Iowa Republicans, and the outcome was a fitting conclusion to a race as jumbled as any since Iowa gained the lead-off position in presidential campaigns four decades ago.

Returns from all 1,774 precincts showed both Romney with 24.55% support and Santorum with 24.54%. Texas congressman Paul drew 21.5%.

The results are non-binding when it comes to picking delegates to the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida. But an Associated Press analysis showed Romney would win 13 delegates and Santorum 12 if there were no changes in their support as the campaign wears on.

Paul ran third and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth, and both men vowed to carry the fight to New Hampshire’s primary and beyond.

Not so Texas governor Rick Perry, who came in fifth and told supporters he would return home to Texas to reassess his candidacy.

Bachmann was a distant sixth, and her campaign appeared in disarray shortly after the results were announced. She told reporters she would carry on — less than an hour after her campaign manager raised doubts about whether she would stay in the race.

Romney is heavily favoured in New Hampshire’s primary next Tuesday, with contests in South Carolina and Florida packed in to the final weeks of January.

Poised to become the frontrunner’s chief agitator, Gingrich is welcoming Romney to New Hampshire with a full-page ad in the state’s largest newspaper that jabs him as a “Timid Massachusetts Moderate”.

The day before, Gingrich, who repeatedly vowed to stay positive in his party’s nomination contest, called Romney a liar on national television. Speaking to supporters later, he said he would not back down.

Gingrich knocked Romney as “a Massachusetts moderate who in fact will be pretty good at managing the decay, but has given no evidence in his years in Massachusetts of any ability to change the culture or change the political structure or change the government.”

Paul joins Santorum and Romney in New Hampshire this week to try to demonstrate his third-place finish in Iowa was not a fluke. And the candidates will meet Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, who skipped the Iowa caucuses and began ratcheting up Romney criticism of his own in recent days.

Speaking to New Hampshire supporters, Huntsman questioned Romney’s belief system, suggesting he’s “been on three sides of every issue.” Earlier in the week, Huntsman criticised Romney’s ties to Wall Street donors and congressional Republicans.

Romney has largely ignored the direct attacks so far, saving his own criticism for the man he hopes to face next November, Obama. He has amassed a sizeable war chest and built a campaign organisation in several states that staffers say will be able to go the distance to the nomination.

To Super Tuesday and beyond

*January 3: Iowa caucus.

* January 10: New Hampshire primary.

* January 21: South Carolina primary.nJanuary 31: Florida primary.

* February 4: Nevada caucus.nFebruary 7: Colorado caucus.

* February 28: Arizona primary, Michigan primary; South Carolina Democratic primary.

* March 3: Washington Republican caucus.

* March 6 (Super Tuesday): Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts Republican caucuses, Minnesota Democratic caucus, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming Republican caucuses (to March 10).

* August 27–30: Republican National Convention, Tampa, Florida.

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