Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney cruised, as expected, to an easy victory in Tuesday’s New Hamp­shire primary, going two for two in the nominating contests thus far and re­inforcing his standing as the man to beat for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

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.

Libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) finished second in New Hampshire. Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. placed third, largely on the strength of the votes of independents and moderates.

What the results left unclear, however, is who — if anyone — might emerge as the conservative alternative to Romney.

Exit polls showed that the quality most valued by Romney’s supporters was the ability to defeat President Obama, and his victory speech looked forward to that general-election battle.

Where Romney’s remarks on the night of the Iowa caucuses were off the cuff, his New Hampshire victory speech — delivered with a teleprompter, shortly after the polls closed — sounded more like an address he envisions giving at the Republican convention.

Romney focused on what he called “the disappointing record of a failed president” rather than the rest of the GOP field.

To the degree he even mentioned his increasingly combative primary opponents, it was as an oblique reference to “some desperate Republicans” who, he said, 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.”

Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who finished a mere eight votes behind Romney in Iowa, was unable to translate that into the surge he had hoped for in New Hampshire. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has been blistering in his criticism of Romney, also failed to break through.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, having all but abandoned the state, finished at the back of the pack of major contenders.

Unlike past New Hampshire primaries, which served to clear the field of weaker candidates, this one does not appear to have reshuffled the roster.

It may, however, bring about some rethinking of the candidates’ strategies. Gingrich, for one, sounded as though he was trying to climb back up on the high road in the wake of his disappointing finish.

“We’re going to take to South Carolina tonight and kick off tomorrow morning a campaign for jobs and economic growth,” the former speaker said from his election-night party in downtown Manchester. “A campaign for a balanced budget, a campaign for returning power to the states, a campaign for a strong national security, a campaign for a stable, solid Social Security program. . . . If we are smart, we can do better things for people.”

With Romney’s New Hampshire win coming a week after a photo-finish victory in the Iowa caucuses, he was the first non-
incumbent 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 was also the additional satisfaction of victory in a state where he suffered a five-point primary loss to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) 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 homeboy,” Huntsman said of Romney during a morning interview on MSNBC. “I mean, he’s been here for a whole lot of years.”

But 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 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.

In recent days, the tone of the campaign, particularly in the attacks on Romney, had 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.

A business career under fire

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 in which 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 nose dive.

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 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 President Obama’s campaign can use against Romney in the general election, if the former Massachusetts governor wins the 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.

Indeed, the defense of Romney came from unexpected quarters.

Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, who is no friend of Romney, said that for Gingrich in particular, the assault on Romney is “payback time” for the barrage of negative advertising that a “super PAC” supporting Romney ran against Gingrich.

“This is very unfortunate,” Limbaugh said. “This is not the kind of stuff that you want said by Republicans.”

And Paul said that his fellow Romney opponents who are attacking Romney’s business record “are either just demagoguing or they don’t have the vaguest idea how the market works.”

Romney’s campaign professed to not be bothered by the attacks. One senior official, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, noted that his strategists would have expected Democrats to seize on that argument anyway, and that there might be an advantage in having it aired early in the race.

The crossfire may grow even more intense as the contest moves to South Carolina, whose primary has often been an epic battle between the GOP’s establishment and insurgent forces.

Asked on CNN whether the Jan. 21 primary there is make-or-break for his campaign, Gingrich said: “I think it is. . . . We’re going to go all out to win South Carolina.”

He will also have reinforcements in the form of a Gingrich-backing independent group that received a $5 million donation from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson.

Most of that money is expected to be spent airing advertising in South Carolina. The law prohibits such groups from coordinating their efforts with the candidates, but given the candidates’ close and long-standing relationships with those who are running them, most campaign experts say that the practical effect of that restriction is nil.

Perry, too, has substantial financial resources. His campaign says that he will have an affinity with the state’s socially conservative southern Republicans that was lacking in Iowa and New Hampshire.

Paul remains an unlikely nominee, in large part because his libertarian views on domestic policy and his noninterventionist international stance put him out of step with most Republicans. But with his intensely loyal following, he is likely to have the financial resources and organization to go the distance in the Republican race.

Staff writers Amy Gardner and Philip Rucker in New Hampshire and staff writer Felicia Sonmez and polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.