MANCHESTER, N.H. -- After a solid win in the Granite State, and signs that attacks on his business career may be backfiring, Mitt Romney should be on top of the world. Yet he is still a candidate at something of a crossroads.
After receiving roughly 39 percent of the vote here -– a percentage point more than Sen. John McCain's 2008 primary victory -- the former Massachusetts governor has now won Iowa and New Hampshire, a feat only accomplished by incumbent presidents Gerald Ford in 1976 and Ronald Reagan in 1984.
His ability to win the Republican nomination looks more sure than ever. But his New Hampshire victory followed a tough few days that have raised fresh questions about Romney's ability to win a general election against President Barack Obama -- the fundamental cause that he has staked his candidacy on.
Romney gave a victory speech Tuesday night to a packed and exultant room at Southern New Hampshire University, where supporters danced, yelled and punctuated his speech with chants of, "Mitt! Mitt! Mitt!"
"The president has run out of ideas. Now he's running out of excuses," Romney said, focusing his fire, as always, on Obama. And he looked ahead to the next contest. "Tonight we're asking the good people of South Carolina to join the citizens of New Hampshire and make 2012 the year he runs out of time."
Complete with teleprompters and skillful stagecraft by his advance team, it was the speech Romney had wanted to give a week ago in Iowa, but was unable to given the closeness of the result.
A man in the audience yelled out, "Mitt happens!"
Romney outpaced his closest competitors here Tuesday by double digits. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) received 23 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman got 17 percent, and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa) was neck and neck with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga), with both right around 9 percent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was under 1 percent.
Romney's victory in New Hampshire showed little sign of the slippage that some had thought would erode his lead here, where he polled consistently at or above 40 percent. His verbal miscue on Monday morning, when he said he liked to be able to "fire people" in reference to choosing health insurance companies, deprived him of a point or two, sources said, but was not catastrophic.
And Romney is polling ahead of the rest of the pack in South Carolina and Florida, the next two contests. Huntsman's strong showing could cut into Romney's number in South Carolina, complicating Romney's attempt to win the state.
There is no disputing Romney's position in this primary: it is very strong. But there are a few reasons why there is cause for concern inside Romney world. The most immediate is the onslaught that Romney faces in South Carolina, where for the next 11 days he will be bashed for his career in private equity by Gingrich and Perry, as well as by $3.4 million in TV ads from a super PAC supporting Gingrich. One Romney adviser said the days ahead will be a "bloody mess."
Gingrich began his onslaught over the past few days, previewing the TV ads set to air in the Palmetto state, which will be supplemented online by a 27-minute propaganda film that lampoons Romney as a "predatory corporate raider" and examines the impact on workers of job loss resulting from takeovers by Bain Capital, Romney's former company.
Perry and Huntsman drafted in behind the Gingrich attacks over the past two days, igniting a battle royale within the Republican party and the conservative movement over whether it was legitimate to criticize someone for participating in the free-market economy.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial and in the last few days we've seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," Romney said in his victory speech. "This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation."
Gingrich is also running an ad in South Carolina accusing Romney of being "pro-abortion" during his time as governor of Massachusetts.
Romney adviser Stuart Stevens said he welcomed the challenge.
"Campaigns are conflicts. They're always a fight. And I think that when you're not fighting, you're coasting," Stevens said.
The Romney campaign is not defenseless. A super PAC supporting Romney has already committed $2.3 million to the fight in South Carolina. And Romney is being helped by a backlash against Gingrich that began over the weekend and reached a new level on Tuesday.
"It seems a little weird, me coming to the defense of Romney, but I think they’re wrong," Paul said. "Reorganizaion is a proper role. You save companies, you save jobs, you reorganize companies that are going to go bankrupt –- and they don’t understand. They’re either just demagoguing or they don’t have the vaguest idea of how the market works."
Conservative radio talk show giant Rush Limbaugh went nuclear on Gingrich Tuesday, a very damaging result for Gingrich given Limbaugh's enormous audience, estimated between 15 and 30 million.
"You could have read this in an Occupy Wall Street flier," Limbaugh said of Gingrich's attacks. "The left could not improve on this."
"The Newt PAC, I got an idea for you guys," Limbaugh said. "Re-cut your ads on Romney and your tagline is, 'I am Barack Obama, and I approve of this message.' Put that at the end of your ad. I'm considering what to do about this, folks. I know it's serious."
Limbaugh said Gingrich's attacks were nothing but revenge against Romney for the way that a super PAC supporting Romney destroyed Gingrich's lead in Iowa in the weeks leading up to the Jan. 3 caucus, where Gingrich eventually finished fourth. And Gingrich confessed that if he does not win South Carolina on Jan. 21, "it would be very hard" to continue his campaign.
Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), an influential figure in the state, said he was "a little concerned about the few Republicans who have criticized what I consider free-market principles."
DeMint appeared to be moving toward Romney, saying that his victory speech Tuesday night was "hitting a lot of the hot buttons for me about balancing the budget."
Nonetheless, the attacks on Romney will take a toll, potentially defining him in the minds of voters in a way that is hard to change. It presages exactly the kind of critique that Obama plans to make of Romney, intending to convince Americans that Romney is a wealthy and out of touch with regular Americans.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, a Romney supporter, said the attacks were "going to happen anyway. It's probably better to have it happen now than later."
Bob White, a long time Romney business associate and friend who is involved with the campaign, told supporters after Romney spoke: "The fight was gonna come. We can win the fight."
The days ahead will go some distance toward demonstrating Romney's capability to deal with attacks on his business background.
But another reason for anxiety within the Romney campaign has emerged in recent days: the candidate's performance. Romney's verbal gaffes have now combined with a well-established lack of ability to inspire Republican voters, renewing questions about whether he is equipped to beat Obama in a general election.
Romney made two glaring gaffes over the past few days. He stated on Sunday that he has feared getting a pink slip, a claim that struck many as laughable given his privileged upbringing. Romney sought to explain the comment a day later.
But on Monday, he was also dealing with the fallout from his ill-conceived way of expressing that Americans should have more choice in health care.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone isn't giving me the service I need, I want to say, you know, I'm going to go get somebody else to provide that service," he said.
It immediately registered as a potential candidacy-defining comment, and the Romney campaign knew it. But Romney rejected later in the day the idea that he would change who he is to connect with all Americans.
"If you think that I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience, that would make me a very different person than I am," Romney said. "I'm going to tell people my own experiences in life, and I realize they're not the same as everybody else."
But a close Romney supporter admitted that the candidate has led a sheltered life, and his comments only served to exacerbate the problem he has relating to voters, despite Stevens' insistence that the comment about firing people "were something that 126.96.36.199 percent of people agree with."
"I don't even think they're gaffes. I think he's saying stuff to people that sounds like regular people," Stevens said.
The problem is that none of Romney's primary opponents have successfully made the case that they are capable of taking the GOP mantle into battle against Obama.
Santorum and Gingrich will fight in South Carolina for Romney alternative, and conservatives who want someone other than Romney seem poised to unite behind Santorum. But the former senator will face a huge uphill battle in raising the money and building an organization capable of competing with Romney in a drawn-out battle for delegates.
Santorum said Tuesday he's ready to take on a long primary.
"The idea that the first two or three primaries are going to decide this race is just ridiculous. We've got a long way to go," Santorum said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe." "The delegate race is going to be a long way to come."
Later in the night, after results were in, Santorum declared, "We can win this race."
Romney is fully ready for any primary challenge, even as his campaign increasingly focuses on Obama.
"Tonight we celebrate," Romney said. "Tomorrow we go back to work."