MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Mitt Romney handily won his firewall state of New Hampshire on Tuesday night, holding on to a substantial lead in the state after several difficult days on the campaign trail.
The former Massachusetts governor now heads to South Carolina and its January 21 primary with the wind at his back as the victor of the first two voting contests.
"Tonight, we celebrate. Tomorrow, we go back to work," he told supporters in a triumphant speech Tuesday night.
Romney, who for the most part has topped the polls in a volatile Republican primary campaign, held a 38% to 24% lead over Ron Paul with about three-quarters of the vote counted. His New Hampshire speech was more of a celebration than when he eked out an eight-vote victory over former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa.
Romney was given a hero's welcome at his victory party in the state where he scooped up almost every high-profile political endorsement.
Flanked by his five strikingly similar sons and his wife, Ann, Romney did not mention his rivals as he spoke before a sea of supporters waving white and blue signs.
Instead, the GOP candidate kept his focus on President Obama, a nod to a potential general election matchup that came a step closer to reality Tuesday. Like in Iowa, Romney captured the majority of wealthy voters, but Paul was the favorite of those in lower income brackets, according to exit polls. But unlike in Iowa, Romney captured social conservative voters and those who identified themselves as tea party supporters.
Romney's camp had long been bullish about the former Massachusetts governor's chances for a healthy win in New Hampshire. The candidate owns a summer home in the state's Lake District and enjoys high name recognition from his days as a neighboring governor.
In early December, the campaign was pushed to action as Newt Gingrich began to surge in state polls. Romney stepped up his retail politicking here as his campaign touted its painstaking organization, far superior to that of any other candidate.
But as support for Gingrich fell in the weeks leading up to the primary, it seemed as though Romney's only real foe would be the high expectations that he could deliver a blowout on Tuesday. Coming off an eight-vote margin of victory in Iowa, a slam-dunk in New Hampshire would quell a potential coup for the would-be nominee.
In the days before the primary, Romney made a series of unforced errors, which played into his GOP rivals' attacks on his career in the private sector. The multimillionaire candidate told an audience he feared getting a "pink slip" at certain points during his career and a day later said: "I like to fire people who provide services to me."
The first five words in that quote were quickly pounced on by rivals in New Hampshire while Rick Perry used the pink slip remark to attack the front-runner while campaigning in South Carolina, pointing to factories downsized by Bain Capital while Romney headed the firm.
The campaign quickly played defense, pushing back against widespread mockery by his opponents as an attack on free enterprise. Meanwhile, Democrats signaled they would continue the same line of attack against Romney should he seal up the GOP nomination, an outcome many political analysts consider likely.
Romney did make reference to the controversy Tuesday night, painting his Republican detractors as "desperate" and tying them to President Obama.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," he said. "This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation."
Romney faces uncertain terrain in South Carolina, where social conservatives like Rick Perry and Rick Santorum see a potential opening. A super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich planned to unleash a multimillion-dollar ad campaign attacking Romney for profiting off of failed companies.
But the GOP candidate will likely benefit from his success in Iowa and New Hampshire, as more voters begin to see Romney as the likely nominee.
A CNN/Time/ORC poll released Friday showed Romney leading likely GOP primary voters with 37%, Santorum with 18% and Gingrich with 17%. But the poll came three days after Santorum's near-win in Iowa and on the rise in most polls while Gingrich, a short-lived front-runner in the fall, sliding in most polls.
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