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Romney ROUTS N.H. RIVALS

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney waves to supporters at the Romney for President New Hampshire primary night rally at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Behind Romney are his sons Tagg and Craig and his wife Ann. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

CONCORD, N.H. – Mitt Romney cruised to a solid victory in the New Hampshire primary Tuesday night, picking up steam from his first-place finish in the lead-off Iowa caucuses and firmly establishing himself as the man to beat for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Tonight we made history,” Romney told cheering supporters before pivoting to a stinging denunciation of President Barack Obama. “The middle class has been crushed . . . our debt is too high and our opportunities too few,” he declared – ignoring the rivals who had been assailing him for weeks and making clear he intends to be viewed as the party’s nominee in waiting after only two contests.

His Republican rivals said otherwise, looking ahead to South Carolina on Jan. 21 as the place to stop the former Massachusetts governor. Even so, the order of finish – Ron Paul second, followed by Jon Huntsman, with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum trailing – scrambled the field and prolonged the increasingly desperate competition to emerge as the true conservative rival to Romney.

With his victory, Romney became the first Republican to sweep the first two contests in competitive races since 1976. Based on partial returns, The Associated Press estimated that turnout would exceed the 2008 record by about 4 percent.

Returns from 95 percent of New Hampshire precincts showed Romney with 39 percent of the vote, followed by Texas Rep Paul with 23 percent, former Utah Gov. Huntsman with 17 percent and former House Speaker Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum with 9 percent each.

Paul told supporters, “I sort of have to chuckle when they describe you and me as being dangerous. That’s the one thing they are telling the truth. We are dangerous to the status quo of this country.”

Huntsman said his finish in New Hampshire gives him “a ticket to ride.”

“As we look at the numbers now, we’re in a strong, confident position,” Huntsman said.

“The president has run out of ideas,” Romney told supporters. “Now he’s running out of excuses.”

AP, Gannett News Service