GOP rivals target Romney 2 days before NH primary

January 8, 2012 - 6:27 PM
Republican Debate

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, answers a question and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum listens during a Republican presidential candidate debate at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord, N.H., Sunday, Jan. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — With the hours slipping away before New Hampshire's presidential primary, Republican rivals fought on multiple fronts Sunday to slow Mitt Romney's march toward his party's nomination.

Their efforts were on display in a combative morning debate and in campaign stops across the state amid the growing belief that the window to stop Romney's momentum was closing. Having narrowly won last week's Iowa caucuses, the former Massachusetts governor is the overwhelming front-runner in New Hampshire's election Tuesday — the first presidential primary election in the nation — and is poised to do well in the subsequent contests.

"The case for the alternative is rapidly disappearing," Romney adviser Tom Rath said.

With that fear in mind, the Republican contenders fanned out across the state Sunday to deliver their closing arguments directly to voters.

Gingrich, the former House speaker, blasted Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" and warned that a video being released by his allies would attack Romney's business career.

"To quote the governor, you have to have broad shoulders and you have to be able to take the heat to be in the kitchen," Gingrich said.

If Gingrich was Romney's chief critic, he was hardly alone.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum pointedly asked Romney during the debate why he hadn't sought re-election after one term as governor in the neighboring state.

"Why did you bail out?" Santorum asked.

Romney fired back with a reference to Santorum's lucrative career in the six years since he lost his Senate seat. Describing politicians who lose office but stay in Washington "and make money as lobbyists or conducting their businesses," Romney said, "I think it stinks."

Romney won the Iowa caucuses last Tuesday by a scant eight votes over Santorum, but he is so far ahead in New Hampshire polls that his rivals have virtually conceded he will win. But they've also joined with an unlikely ally in fueling an evolving expectations game.

"If Mitt Romney doesn't get over 50 percent on Tuesday here, being a former governor of the state right next door and having a family home here, then there's something seriously wrong," said Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who spoke to reporters outside the debate hall.

An increasingly confident Romney campaign countered by highlighting the possibility of back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"If Mitt wins, I think the history-making nature of that win will overwhelm all the other coverage of the race to this point," senior Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. "No non-incumbent Republican has won both Iowa and New Hampshire."

New Hampshire success has traditionally helped shape the outcome of the subsequent contest in South Carolina, which holds the South's first primary on Jan. 21.

While Gingrich, Santorum and the rest of Romney's rivals direly need success in South Carolina, Romney noted that he has been endorsed by that state's governor, Nikki Haley, who visited New Hampshire on his behalf this weekend.

Still, Santorum shifted his focus to South Carolina as he tries to become the favored candidate of social conservatives.

He scheduled a brief visit to upstate South Carolina Sunday to pick up the endorsement of former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer. Both Santorum and an outside group supporting him are pumping money into the state for TV ads, starting Monday, after aides said the former Pennsylvania senator pulled in $2 million in the two days after the Iowa caucuses.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa in hopes of a breakout showing in New Hampshire, was mobbed at a coffee shop in Hampstead, where he stood on the counter to ask the crowd to mobilize on his behalf.

Defending his service in the Obama administration, Huntsman said: "I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn't believe in putting country first.

"He's got this bumper sticker that says ... 'Believe in America.' How can you believe in America when you're not willing to serve America? That's just phony nonsense."

Gingrich's jabs at Romney have intensified in recent days despite his recent promise to avoid a negative campaign. He accused Romney of "pious baloney" in the debate and charged him with hiding behind inaccurate attack ads aired by allies.

Gingrich briefly led the pack before his surge was blunted by a series of ads aired in Iowa by a super PAC operated by former Romney aides and supporters. Gingrich has complained bitterly that the attacks were false.

On Sunday, a Gingrich-supporting super PAC launched a website criticizing Romney's leadership of an investment firm. The website says the firm, Bain Capital, eliminated the jobs of thousands of Americans when it took over their companies.

Asked if he was being consistent, Gingrich said, "I'm consistent because I think you ought to have fact-based campaigns."

He demanded Romney say whether the attacks against Gingrich were true.

Romney replied: "I haven't seen them, and as you know, under the law, I can't direct the ads. If there's anything in the ads that are wrong, I hope they take it out."

Yet moments after saying he hadn't seen the commercials, he recited the charges they made and said they were accurate: that Gingrich had been forced to resign as speaker, that he had once talked of finding common ground with House Democrats on climate change and that he had called a House Republican proposal to overhaul Medicare "right-wing social engineering."

Gingrich hedged when he confronted with one of his own campaign leaflets declaring Romney to be unelectable against President Barack Obama. "I think he'll have a very hard time getting elected," was as far as Gingrich would go.

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Associated Press writers Holly Ramer in New Hampshire and Thomas Beaumont in South Carolina contributed to this report.