By Robin Abcarian and Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times –
MANCHESTER, N.H. — In the end, the only suspense Tuesday centered on just how big Mitt Romney’s margin in Tuesday’s primary would be — and how his chief challengers would try to wrench the illusion of victory from defeat.
The crowd at Romney’s Hooksett rally erupted into cheers at the stroke of 8 p.m. as the anchors at Fox News declared him the winner. Less than 30 minutes later, Romney was on stage, flanked by his family and his star-studded New Hampshire team.
“Thank you New Hampshire, tonight we made history!” Romney said. And he beamed a message south: “Tomorrow we go back to work and take our message to South Carolina.”
Romney’s focus, as always, was on President Barack Obama, but he jabbed as well at fellow Republicans who in recent days have portrayed him as a callous job-killer. But he also reached for some Reaganesque optimism, as he had in the ads that had saturated New Hampshire television leading up to Tuesday’s win.
“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,” he said.
“We’re with you!” a supporter shouted.
His advisers were swarmed by reporters posing questions about whether the nomination now seemed inevitable, four years after Romney fell to defeat here.
“This is so much more fun than last time,” one man said as he passed by Romney adviser Ben Ginsberg.
Just before Ron Paul took the stage at his boisterous party here, a woman who would identify herself only as a founder of New Hampshire’s tea party stood before an oversized TV broadcasting Romney’s speech.
“Oh look at him. Mr. Fake,” she said, gazing at Romney. “He looks so happy.”
That was one of the few sour notes, though, as most in the crowd at Paul’s Manchester party seemed delighted at his second-place finish.
The 76-year-old Texas congressman took the stage to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” He thanked his family, his staff and the Union Leader, an influential local newspaper, “for not endorsing me!” (The Union Leader endorsed Newt Gingrich, who was expected to come in fourth or fifth place.)
Paul’s 16-minute speech hit on all his favorite libertarian themes, including some that were once too obscure for a presidential campaign, such as abolishing the Federal Reserve. “This is the first presidential campaign that the subject ever came up,” Paul said.
“We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight,” he added. “… I sorta have to chuckle when they describe you and me as being dangerous. That’s one thing they are telling the truth about because we are dangerous to the status quo.”
Looking on from the back of the ballroom, a 52-year-old real estate agent from Long Island nodded approvingly. “He stays on message, but it comes from his heart and he doesn’t sound like a broken record,” said Gigi Bowman. “Romney sounds rehearsed. When Ron Paul speaks, it comes from the heart. Maybe I am biased, but I want to listen to him every time he says something.”
After Paul’s speech, his supporters streamed out of the ballroom. As one man strolled with his twentysomething son to the car, he said, “The Republicans can’t win without our 25 percent. They cannot win without us.”
Jon Huntsman Jr. staked his presidential bid on New Hampshire and came in third. He nonetheless painted his performance as a win, jubilantly taking the stage at a Manchester pub with his wife, Mary Kaye, raising her hand as if in victory.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I think we’re in the hunt,” he said, as the crowd roared and chanted, “In the hunt! In the hunt!”
Huntsman campaigned the old-fashioned way, holding more than 170 events, the kind of effort that he hoped would pay off Tuesday night.
“We have worked hard and diligently, we have pounded the pavement, we have shaken hands, we have had conversations, we have won people over person by person,” he said. “My confidence in the system is reborn.”
Huntsman supporters tried to remain optimistic too. Jim Culveyhouse, 56, said he was hopeful Huntsman would continue his run.
“I don’t know,” said the Goffstown resident who voted for Ralph Nader’s third-party bid four years ago. “It would have been big to come in second. But it’s a good showing. He should be happy.”