To win just under 40 percent of the vote in a primary with five active candidates is pretty impressive, even for a candidate like Mitt Romney, who started off with significant advantages in New Hampshire.
Yes, he is well-known there because he was governor of next-door Massachusetts, had run before and owns a house on Lake Winnipesaukee. But the exit poll indicates Romney held his own among independents, tea party supporters and late deciders.
He didn't lose ground in the heat of the campaign, despite his ragged performance in Sunday's debate (he was obviously not candid about why he didn't run for re-election as governor) and his Monday statement, instantly regretted if I read the videotape right, that "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
Romney easily exceeded the 25 percent ceiling that many critics perceived, and he's running at least a bit above that in the few post-new-year polls in the next primary states, South Carolina and Florida.
Reporters covering New Hampshire had a hard time getting a feel for why people supported Romney. Polling indicated that Romney voters were more firm in their support than backers for other candidates. But while Romney had no trouble filling the venues of his relatively few late campaign events (held at times and in places inconvenient for hostile media and hecklers), you didn't encounter many Romney fans in the crowds at other candidates' events.
What you did encounter was many voters who said that they were undecided and, in the last week, many who said they had narrowed their choice down to Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum -- two candidates with significant differences on foreign policy and an emphasis on cultural issues.
My sense is that these were tactical voters, waiting to see which candidate had momentum and gauging their mettle at campaign appearances. In relatively secular New Hampshire, they clearly broke more for Huntsman, who lived in the state and held more campaign events than anyone else, than for Santorum, who delighted in taking hostile questions on issues like same-sex marriage, or Newt Gingrich, who alternated between events on issues like brain science and attacks on Romney's business career.
The exit poll makes it clear that Romney has connected with many self-described conservative and tea party Republicans. His standard speech includes encomiums of the Founding Fathers and quotations from the Declaration of Independence.
Americans in recent years have, as best-seller lists testify, a growing interest in the Founders, and one of the achievements of the tea party movement is that voters are measuring candidates' policies against the Founders' principles.
All six active candidates have obtained tickets to South Carolina, some first-class and some wangled with the political equivalent of frequent-flier miles. Rick Perry flew into New Hampshire for the two 10-hours-apart debates at which he pitched his appeal to South Carolinians and then flew right back south.
Santorum got his ticket from his tied-for-first finish in Iowa, and Gingrich, suspiciously specific about the contents of his supposedly independent super-PAC's 27-minute anti-Romney film, is headed down there, as well.
Huntsman, though far behind Romney in New Hampshire, did well enough to get the chance to make his case to South Carolinians. And Ron Paul, who finished second, was going to keep on keeping on no matter how he did.
South Carolina Republicans have a tradition of backing winners, going back to Strom Thurmond's backing of Richard Nixon over Ronald Reagan at the 1968 national convention. In 1988, Thurmond protege Lee Atwater engineered South Carolina's early primary, just before Southern Super Tuesday, to help his candidate, George H.W. Bush.
Ever since, South Carolina, a state that voted from 88 percent to 99 percent Democratic in Franklin Roosevelt's days, has clinched the Republican nomination, and not for the candidates deemed most conservative: Bush in 1988 and 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000 and John McCain in 2008.
No nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate has won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary before. Romney has, though with an asterisk in Iowa, and his flight path to the nomination seems clear.
But he's going to have competition, which is good for him and for the Republican Party, and victory is not assured. He still has to earn it.