Mitt Romney's expected double-digit win in New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary, which gives him victories in the first two nominating races, sets up a must-win battle for his more conservative rivals in the next primary in South Carolina.
Taking 39 percent of the vote, Romney became the first ever non-incumbent Republican to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Tonight we made history," Romney said to his supporters Tuesday night. "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."
Romney will seek to keep his momentum going in South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary. A win there for the former Massachusetts governor may spell a surprisingly early end for a 2012 primary battle that began in earnest last summer with the first of many GOP debates. Wins for Romney in the first three states would force Republicans to consider uniting behind him or allowing the GOP rivals to continue to attack one another, risking damage to the party's hopes in the general election.
Romney will have a steeper hill to climb in South Carolina, where voters are more conservative than those in New Hampshire. Exit polls in the Granite State showed that fiscal conservatives outnumbered social conservatives. While only four-in-10 New Hampshire voters self-identified themselves as social conservatives, that number will be much higher in South Carolina, which should provide an opening for the more conservative candidates trying to surge from the back of the New Hampshire pack.
Two of those candidates, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, will not be able to boast about a second-place New Hampshire finish while campaigning in South Carolina. That distinction goes to Ron Paul, who won 23 percent of the New Hampshire vote, outperforming all the polls heading into Tuesday as well as his result there in 2008. Paul remains a long shot for securing the Republican nomination, but his performance in the New Hampshire debates, directly taking on Gingrich and Santorum, has transformed the Texas congressman into an effective blocker and tackler for Romney.
"We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight," Paul said Tuesday night to his New Hampshire supporters, who responded with "President Paul" chants. "We are dangerous to the status quo of this country."
Gingrich and Santorum engaged in a tight battle for fourth place in New Hampshire, with each receiving 9 percent of the vote.
"We have an opportunity to be the true conservative," said Santorum, the surprise second-place finisher in Iowa who did not spend a lot of time or money in New Hampshire.
Gingrich, who underperformed in both Iowa and New Hampshire after surging in the polls as 2011 ended, has more money to spend than Santorum.
"We're going to work very hard on two sets of messages," Gingrich said of his South Carolina game plan. "One is a contrast with Gov. Romney, drawing a sharp distinction between his record as governor and my record, so it becomes clear what we mean when we say Reagan conservative and Massachusetts moderate. And then, second, I think the question of electability and who is capable of winning against Obama."
Gingrich, who represented South Carolina's neighboring state Georgia in Congress, hopes to capitalize on that connection in much the same way Romney did in New Hampshire, where Romney owns a vacation home.
"The ideal South Carolina fight will be a Georgia conservative versus a Massachusetts moderate," Gingrich said.
Jon Huntsman finished third in New Hampshire, 6 percentage points behind Paul. "I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman," he told his supporters Tuesday night. "Hello, South Carolina."
But Huntsman backers were probably expecting a second-place finish in moderate New Hampshire. The former Utah governor is not getting much traction with South Carolina's voters.
Meanwhile Romney continued to look past his GOP rivals, who he called "desperate Republicans" on Tuesday. Instead, Romney attempted to assume the mantle of the party's presumptive nominee by taking on President Barack Obama.
"Today, we are faced with the disappointing record of a failed president," Romney said in his Tuesday victory speech. "The last three years have held a lot of change, but they haven't offered much hope. The president has run out of ideas. Now, he's running out of excuses."