Mitt Romney has won the New Hampshire primary, building on his first-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses and establishing himself as the man to beat for the Republican US presidential nomination.
Final results showed the former Massachusetts governor with 39 per cent of the vote, followed by Texas congressman Ron Paul with 23 per cent and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman with 17 per cent.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum trailed with 10 per cent and nine per cent, respectively, while Rick Perry, the governor of Texas who did not campaign in the state, polled just one per cent of votes.
Romney, who became the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to place first in both Iowa and New Hampshire in decades, said his latest win had "made history" and looked ahead to the next primary in South Carolina on January 21 as he established himself as the clear favourite to take on Barack Obama in November's presidential election.
"Americans know that our future is brighter and better than these troubled times," said Romney in front of a cheering crowd.
"The president has run out of ideas. Now, he's running out of excuses. And tonight, we are asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time."
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Paul, a libertarian candidate who has found favour among so-called "Tea Party" conservatives, told supporters: "I sort of have to chuckle when they describe you and me as dangerous. They're telling the truth because we are dangerous to the status quo... We have had a victory for the cause of liberty tonight."
Huntsman and Santorum, who narrowly lost the Iowa caucuses, both told their supporters that they would continue their campaigns to South Carolina, with Huntsman drawing satisfaction from a late surge that pushed him into third place.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt!" he said at a rally. "I'd say third place is a ticket to ride!"
The New Hampshire primary is the traditional starting gun in the US primaries season, although in recent elections it has been preceded by the Iowa caucuses.
Although only 12 delegates are at stake, it is considered an important early test of a candidate's chances in a state that is typically more conservative than its New England neighbours.
Romney now has 18 delegates, but needs at least 1,144 from across the country to secure the nomination, with 50 up for grabs in Florida on January 31, 155 in Texas on April 3, and 95 in New York on April 24.
Eleven states hold Republican primaries on March 6, dubbed "Super Tuesday", while California, with 172 delegates at stake, does not vote until June, by which time the identity of the presumptive nominee will probably already have been decided.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher, reporting from Manchester, New Hampshire, said: "Romney has now won New Hampshire and if you look at opinion polls in South Carolina, which have been pretty accurate throughout the whole process, then he is the leader there and also in Florida.
"The reality is if he wins in South Carolina money is going to leak from other campaigns and he is going to be the frontrunner and presumptive nominee for the Republican Party."
Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, told Al Jazeera: "It is a huge night for Romney. He is the first Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.
"Romney is thought be more electable than other candidates. He is been running for office for several years and he might get the nomination," he said.
But Robinson said the strong second-place finish Ron Paul was "fascinating", given his distance from mainstream Republicanism on policies including getting rid of the Federal Reserve, abolishing income tax and his isolationist foreign policy that would bring home all US troops stationed abroad.
"His ideas are very much at odds with other Republican candidates and that’s an indication how complicated the Republican Party is these days," he said.
While Romney's victory appears to give him a clear run at securing the Republican candidacy, his rivals can draw hope from the failure of recent winners in New Hampshire to press on and claim the nomination.
John McCain won the Republican primary in 2000 but subsequently lost out to George W. Bush. In 2008 Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary but the party's choice eventually went to Obama.
Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler explains the mechanics behind the New Hampshire primary
Brad Marston, a Republican operative in New Hampshire, said that with new rules regarding how the number of state delegates are allocated, the race for the nomination was still far from over.
"It's about how much does [Romney] wins by . . . clearly he is the odds-on favourite. I think one of the things people are forgetting about is that the Republican party has changed the rules this time. In the past it's always been 'winner-take-all': if you won New Hampshire with 35 per cent of the vote, you got 100 per cent of the delegates," he told Al Jazeera.
"That is not true this time. From now until April 1, we're allocating our delegates on a proportional basis. That makes it that much harder to score an early knockout.
"If I was advising a second-tier candidate, I'd be looking at the caucases. There could be won with volunteer organisations and volunteer efforts, and just doing enough to stay in the game and hope that Romney as the frontrunner stumbles."
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies