By Mary Milliken
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Despite 42 years of marriage, New Hampshire couple Belinda and Eddie Carr were worlds apart on this primary voting Tuesday as they argued over how to get the U.S. economy moving again.
In the shadow of Manchester's red-brick textile mills that once hummed with activity and now house offices, the Carrs, both in their 70s, disagreed over the distribution of wealth, the Republicans' pro-business stance and, well, the way forward.
For the Carrs and many New Hampshire voters, the economy and its uncertain future loomed large over the season's first primary to choose the Republican candidate for president.
Exit polls indicated the economy was the number-one issue for six out of 10 New Hampshire voters on Tuesday, leaving social issues that were more prevalent in last week's Iowa caucuses in the dust.
The U.S. government's budget deficit was the second most important issue at 24 percent of voters, while abortion and healthcare were farther down the list at 5-6 percent each.
Even more tellingly, a full 94 percent said they were worried about the economy, 70 percent of them "very worried."
That a state with a relatively low unemployment rate, 5.2 percent versus 8.5 percent nationally, puts so much emphasis on fixing the economy suggests this trend will continue to play out nationally, in primaries and the November election.
The candidate who prevailed Tuesday was the man with long experience in Corporate America, Mitt Romney, a former venture capitalist running on his business record and his ideas for creating jobs.
He was poised to win about 39 percent of the vote, giving him great momentum heading into the January 21 primary in conservative South Carolina.
Among the 61 percent who said the most important issue was the economy in a CNN exit poll, 45 percent backed Romney.
"I was looking for someone who is smart, knows our country, knows the financial system and how to get the country moving again with jobs," said Eddie Carr, 77, a school bus driver. "I think he can get the country going."
In an uncharacteristically impassioned speech Tuesday night, Romney focused on the weak economy and laid blame squarely at the feet of Democratic President Barack Obama.
'GETTING BY ON LESS'
"In break rooms and living rooms, I've heard stories of families getting by on less, of carefully planned retirements now replaced by jobs at minimum wage," Romney said. "But even now, amidst the worst economy since the Great Depression, I've rarely heard a refrain of hopelessness."
Obama has struggled to jump-start the economy and has only recently seen somewhat encouraging signs in job growth. Romney, if he wins the nomination, plans to hit Obama hard on the stubbornly high jobless rate.
"We know that the future of this country is better than 8 or 9 percent unemployment," he told his supporters Tuesday night.
Yet, some voters who saw the economy as the most important issue did not see Romney as the answer.
Joe Coulter, 30, an underwriter for a financial firm, liked Romney's business experience but decided to go with former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, whom he felt was more moderate.
Huntsman finished third Tuesday behind Ron Paul, who got 21 percent of the vote of those who made the economy the top issue.
Coulter noted that New Hampshire hasn't suffered economically as much as the rest of the nation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
But like many voters in this state of 1.3 million, he worries about the weak economy beyond the state line.
Candidates who did not sharpen their economic messages between Iowa and New Hampshire suffered the consequences, most notably social conservative Rick Santorum.
He surprisingly finished second in Iowa, but then came in fifth in New Hampshire, netting only 7 percent of the vote of those who said the economy was the most important issue.
"Santorum failed to pivot to economic issues here," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
As the presidential nomination race moves to South Carolina, candidates trying to slow down Romney's march to the nomination will try to gain points on social issues, such as abortion.
During Romney's 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts he expressed support for abortion rights. He reversed his position in 2005, but many conservative Republicans who oppose such rights remain suspicious of his views on abortion.
Republican contender Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has vowed to make Romney's view on abortion an issue in South Carolina.
But with the unemployment rate there at 9.9 percent, well above the national average, voters' focus on economic issues could frustrate that strategy.
(Additional reporting by Ros Krasny and Alina Selyukh; Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham)
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