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Exit polls: Romney dominates more moderate New Hampshire

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
January 11, 2012 -- Updated 0455 GMT (1255 HKT)
  • Mitt Romney wins almost every category over voters in the New Hampshire primary
  • Romney did best among the wealthiest voters
  • N.H. primary voters appeared more moderate than their counterparts elsewhere
  • Jon Huntsman did best with voters opposed to the Tea Party

(CNN) -- "Moderate" may be a four-letter word in most Republican circles, but not in New England.

Mitt Romney cruised to victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday night, riding a wave of support from mainstream Yankee Republicans -- fiscally conservative, socially moderate and politically pragmatic. The former Massachusetts governor swept nearly every group of voters, whether categorized by income, ideology or religion.

The former venture capitalist's support rose steadily according to voters' incomes. He did best among those making more than $200,000 annually.

Christian conservatives and Tea Party backers -- the heart of Rick Santorum's support last week in Iowa -- gave a plurality win to Romney this time. The switch reflected a major regional distinction, as well as the broader universe of voters who take part in primaries as opposed to caucuses.

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Ron Paul beat out Jon Huntsman for a distant second-place finish, while would-be conservative challengers Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich struggled to even crack the double-digit threshold. Rick Perry, who packed his bags for South Carolina long ago, was all but shut out.

Back in 2008, John McCain won the first-in-the-nation GOP primary with the help of independent voters. This year, independents splintered while Romney crushed his opponents among registered Republicans, winning nearly 50% of their votes.

A plurality of New Hampshire voters on Tuesday said the most important candidate quality is the ability to beat Barack Obama in November; Romney won more than 60% of this group. A mere 13% of voters said the most important candidate quality is whether he's a true conservative -- a miniscule total for a party supposedly dominated by rigid ideologues. (Exit polls: New Hampshire)

Asked whether they'd prefer their elected officials to compromise in order to get things done or stick to their principles, a majority of voters chose compromise. Sixty-four percent of voters called themselves conservative on fiscal issues, but only 38% considered themselves conservative on hot-button social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion.

For Huntsman, who staked everything on the Granite State, the results presaged rough waters ahead. The former Utah governor dominated among the 17% of voters opposed to the Tea Party and the 12% of voters satisfied with the Obama administration -- not exactly building blocks for a winning Republican nomination strategy.

Huntsman, also a former ambassador to China, basically tied Romney among those voters who valued experience above all else. Unfortunately for him, that group only comprised a quarter of the New Hampshire electorate.

Paul, meanwhile, ran best among the young, the poor, and self-described social liberals -- equally problematic for a GOP primary contender.

Now the race shifts to South Carolina, a Southern kingmaker state that has picked every Republican nomination winner since 1980. The state, known for fights on explosive social issues, suddenly promises to be the scene of a rare GOP fight with class warfare overtones as Romney's opponents target his career at Bain Capital. Perry accused Romney this week of practicing "vulture capitalism."

"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial," Romney told supporters Tuesday night. "And in the last few days, we've seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and ... for our nation."

Time will tell.

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