MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney cruised as expected to an easy victory in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, going 2-for-2 in the nominating contests so far and reinforcing his standing as the man to beat for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas finished second, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman placed third on the strength of the votes of independents and moderates.
On a night when exit polls showed his supporters' top concern was beating President Barack Obama, Romney delivered a speech to a room full of cheering supporters that focused on what he called "the disappointing record of a failed president" rather than the rest of the GOP field.
In his only reference to his primary opponents and the intensified criticism they are aiming his way, Romney decried "some desperate Republicans" whom he claimed have joined forces with Obama.
"This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation," Romney added. "This country already has a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy. We must offer an alternative vision."
What the results left unclear, however, is who, if anyone, might emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who finished a mere eight votes behind Romney in Iowa, failed to translate that into the surge he had hoped for in New Hampshire. Nor did former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been blistering in his criticism of Romney.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who had all but abandoned the state, finished at the back of the pack of major contenders.
The race moves south to what promises to be a brutal fight in South Carolina, where if Romney prevails in the third contest in a row on Jan. 21, he might be all but unstoppable for the nomination.
Early exit-poll numbers, which did not count evening voters, suggest the electorate was more independent than in Republican contests in 2008, 2000 or 1996. By party identification, nearly half of early voters said they identify as independents, with more than four in 10 of all voters officially registered as undeclared.
With his expected win coming a week after a photo-finish victory in the Iowa caucuses, Romney was the first nonincumbent Republican to win the first two contests on the modern nominating calendar.
"Tonight we made history!" Romney declared when he took the stage.
For Romney, there also was the additional satisfaction of victory in a state where he suffered a five-point loss to Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008, dealing a blow from which Romney's campaign that year never recovered.
Even before the polls closed Tuesday, Romney's opponents sought to play down a first-place finish by a candidate who had served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 and who has a vacation home in New Hampshire.
"He's a home boy," Huntsman said of Romney during a morning interview on MSNBC. "I mean, he's been here for a whole lot of years."
However, Huntsman had staked virtually everything on making a strong showing in New Hampshire. He skipped the Iowa caucuses so that he could focus almost exclusively on the second contest, in hopes for a breakout moment that has so far eluded him.
His calculation was that the state's unique political profile -- relatively moderate, with an open process that allows independents to vote in the GOP primary -- would be a good fit for him.
With most of the returns still to come, Huntsman said early Tuesday night that he was confident about at least a strong third-place finish and vowed to continue his campaign.
"We go south from here," he said in an interview on CNN.
Romney's advantage was so formidable that the real competition among his rivals was for the bragging rights that would come from a second- or even a third-place finish.
Gingrich, who was engaged in a struggle with Santorum to emerge in New Hampshire as the conservative alternative to Romney, said he hoped to become the "comeback grandfather." It was a joking reference to Bill Clinton's famous declaration in 1992 that his second-place finish to former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts made him the "comeback kid."
In recent days, the tone of the campaign, particularly in the attacks on Romney, has taken a sharply negative turn. Romney's rivals have focused not on their policy differences with him -- which by and large are relatively small -- but on his character and fitness to lead the country.
Much of their criticism has centered on Romney's record as a corporate turnaround artist during the 1980s and '90s, something he has highlighted as his greatest asset in an election where the troubled economy is certain to be Topic A.
About seven in 10 New Hampshire voters are "very worried" about the national economy, nearly three times the number saying so four years ago, before the financial crisis sent the economy into a nosedive.
Where Romney has talked about such successes as the launch of the office-supply chain Staples, his rivals have noted instances in which Romney's firm, Bain Capital, laid off workers and took big profits for its investors on companies that were hurtling toward bankruptcy.
In campaign appearances and television interviews, Gingrich suggested that Romney had "undermined capitalism" while implementing Bain's "indefensible" business model.
Perry, who put forth only a token effort in New Hampshire so that he could focus on what he believes will be a more welcoming electorate in South Carolina, likened Romney's firm to "vultures ... waiting for a company to get sick."
Some Republicans are alarmed that their own candidates are providing sound bites that Obama's campaign could use against Romney in the general election if he wins the GOP nomination.
"We're degenerating into a lot of finger-pointing and negative advertising that is going to hurt the conservative agenda," Ovide Lamontagne, a GOP candidate for New Hampshire governor, said in an interview.