It's just the first Republican primary. But a convincing win in New Hampshire should give former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney considerable momentum in his quest toward the GOP nomination.
With 95 percent of precincts reporting, Romney had more than 39 percent of the vote. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was solidly in second, with about 23 percent, while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had secured third place, with nearly 17 percent of the vote.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were in a tight battle for fourth place, but each had less than 9.5 percent of the vote.
"If [Romney] wins by 15 percent at the end of the night, it's over," says Chip Felkel, a longtime GOP strategist in South Carolina. "With a significant victory tonight, you'll start to see reality setting in. What's the benefit of finishing second in New Hampshire if you have no chance here in South Carolina?"
Looking For A Boost
Neither Paul nor Huntsman is expected to gain much momentum from his showing heading into South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 21, says Jim Guth, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Paul may have the same ceiling of support in South Carolina that he has seen in Iowa and New Hampshire, Guth suggests. "Paul has his avid supporters but will have about the same percentage here he's had elsewhere," he says.
And Huntsman, who skipped Iowa and placed all his hopes on New Hampshire, will not gain enough momentum from a third-place showing there to overcome concerns that South Carolina conservatives have about him, Guth says.
"Huntsman is a little too far to the left for any group of South Carolina Republicans," he says.
A Strong Finish
In the past, New Hampshire Republicans have sometimes given their primary support to insurgent candidates. But it appears that a sizable share of late-deciding voters decided to back Romney.
"The campaign just worked like clockwork," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "Mitt Romney and his campaign never let this campaign get especially interesting. They really had this state buttoned down."
Attacks on Romney came too late in the race to make much difference, says Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College. Instead, he was able to "stay above the fray," she says, while other candidates pummeled each other in hopes of becoming the "non-Mitt."
"Romney's been very lucky in this contest that there hasn't been a non-Mitt," Fowler says. "There have been multiple non-Mitts."
The Caravan Heads South
Looking ahead, Romney's greatest concern has been that ardent conservatives would rally behind a single champion who would then stand as his main rival.
That hasn't happened yet. And results in New Hampshire suggest that it may not happen soon, says Charlie Arlinghaus, who directs a free-market think tank in Concord, N.H.
"Romney will get a big boost going into South Carolina," he says, "and the only way to stop him would be for the right to unite behind one of two candidates [Gingrich and Santorum] who did very poorly in New Hampshire."
Some observers were already wondering how Gingrich or Santorum could build on disappointing showings in New Hampshire.
Santorum at this point lacks the organizational strength or campaign cash to threaten in South Carolina, says Felkel.
After finishing in a near tie with Romney in Iowa last week, Santorum has been unable to unite conservatives behind him. Instead, he will still have to battle for their support with Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has been campaigning in South Carolina this past week.
Santorum "may not have the support, beyond a disorganized group of social conservatives, to mount any kind of challenge," Felkel said. "And with Perry and Gingrich still in the race, he doesn't have the votes."
Conservatives say they'll still make a stand against Romney in South Carolina. But unless they unite behind a single candidate, it may be difficult for anyone to challenge him seriously there.
New Hampshire has long been considered favorable territory for Romney.
"He did really well with a lot of types of voters," says Dean Spiliotes, founder of the political blog NHPoliticalCapital.com. "You get a sense of the size and power of his campaign compared to the other organizations when you see it on the ground here."
Romney poured considerable money and effort into New Hampshire. He was sideswiped in recent days by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign created by a Gingrich-affiliated superPAC criticizing Romney for his tenure as head of private equity firm Bain Capital.
Those attacks failed to derail Romney in the state, but it's certain they will be revisited in South Carolina, Fowler says.
Exit polling of New Hampshire voters showed that 56 percent of them did not consider campaign advertising an important factor in deciding their votes. By contrast, just over half — 52 percent – said debates between the candidates were a very important factor in deciding their vote, while an additional 31 percent said they were somewhat important.
"Yes, there are some open questions about South Carolina, such as whether the Gingrich superPAC ads can eat away at Romney's lead," says John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University. "But it seems hard to imagine that Romney can, technically, win Iowa and, certainly, win New Hampshire and somehow still lose the nomination."