MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Knowing Mitt Romney is probably unstoppable in New Hampshire, his Republican presidential rivals
took their best shots at roughing him up for the contests ahead in Monday's fast-paced finale of the campaign for the nation's first primary. He may have inadvertently helped them in that effort.
Romney tried to float above the fray, as if already picked to take on President Barack Obama. But the front-runner stirred up a tempest that was already brewing over his private-sector record when he declared "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
Obviously weary, he was talking off the cuff about Americans being able to "fire" their health insurers, but rival Jon Huntsman seized on the opening and Democrats quickly circulated the video clip.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people, I enjoy creating jobs," Huntsman told reporters at a Concord, N.H., rally. "It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America, and that's a dangerous place for someone to be."
The former Massachusetts governor, who had practically adopted New Hampshire as his home, preached a free-enterprise ethic and
against an interfering government in the final hours before Tuesday's voting.
He's held a comfortable lead in pre-primary polls, leaving his opponents essentially vying for second place while hoping New
Hampshire's capacity to spring a surprise might yet break their way.
Rivals quickened their drumbeat of criticism against him. Much of it is centered on his tenure at the Bain Capital private equity firm when it was taking over a host of companies, growing some of them, closing others.
Romney has never substantiated his claim that he helped create more than 100,000 jobs at Bain, an assertion key to his economically centered candidacy. That has left him vulnerable to charges by Democrats, and increasingly his GOP opponents, that he was merely a corporate takeover artist who put profits ahead of workers.
Declaring "I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," Newt Gingrich promised a tougher tone in the race, which he had previewed in weekend debates. "Mitt Romney cannot campaign with a straight face as a conservative," said the former House speaker, soon to be aided by an ad campaign in South Carolina assailing Romney and his Bain record.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, rocked on his heels by a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, echoed Gingrich's line of attack from South Carolina, having passed up the New Hampshire race.
"I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips- whether he'd have enough of them to hand out," Perry told several dozen breakfast patrons in Anderson, S.C. That was a slap at Romney's recent comment that he worried about getting a pink slip during his executive career.
Perry cited South Carolina companies that downsized under Bain's control, and said it would be an "insult" for Romney to come to the state and ask for voters' support in easing economic pain.
"He caused it," Perry said, describing himself as best positioned to untangle the "unholy alliance between Washington and Wall Street."
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a prominent Romney
supporter, shot back that Gingrich and Perry are talking not just like Democrats, but socialists.
"Sometimes the socialists are Republicans," Sununu said at Romney's Manchester, N.H., headquarters, where the candidate stopped to make a few calls to voters. "I would not be using comments that sound like they could have been written in the White
Despite the swirling questions about workers who lost their jobs at Bain-owned companies, Romney chose to liken consumers in the
health care market to employers who get to lay people off. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," he said at a Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
"If someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, `I'm going to get somebody else to provide that service to me."'
Alone among the half dozen contenders, Perry skipped New Hampshire. But several others are looking to South Carolina, too, to help level the playing field, conceding Romney's advantage in his neighborhood.
One of them was Rick Santorum, who came within eight votes of
upsetting Romney in Iowa only to find New Hampshire a tough sell.
"Second place would be a dream come true," Santorum told reporters, who outnumbered supporters on a chilly soccer field in Nashua. He is hoping his social conservative credentials will serve him better in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21.
The candidates were all but tripping over each other Monday, concentrating their day in the southern half of New Hampshire, known for holding town-hall meetings in actual town halls.
Ron Paul visited a Manchester diner in the morning, planning to shake hands with patrons, but swiftly departed because of a crush of news camera crews.
The Texas congressman told Fox News his campaign did not plan to
contest Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31, largely for financial reasons. But he said the plan could change if he did well in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"We're still taking one week at a time, one primary at a time."
Huntsman, who needs a strong New Hampshire performance to stay
viable in the race, had perhaps the most frantic pace Monday, with seven stops on his itinerary from Lebanon near the Vermont line to the seacoast.
The former Utah governor visited a Lebanon truck stop and took the phone from an employee behind the counter who was speaking with
a milk delivery driver. He said he's looking for votes wherever he can find them. "I'm the underdog," he said, a label that applies- at least in New Hampshire - to anyone but Romney.
Gingrich, still smarting from a damaging barrage of negative ads in Iowa by Romney allies, vowed to draw a "very sharp contrast" with Romney, political shorthand for counterattacking. That effort was evident in weekend debates, when the former House speaker upbraided Romney for "pious baloney," and it will become more so thanks to a new film, sponsored by a political committee supportive
of Gingrich, that accuses Romney of "reaping massive awards" at
Bain Capital at the expense of companies taken over by the firm.
Gingrich hastened to say he hadn't seen the film, just as Romney tried to maintain an arm's length from the anti-Gingrich political committee ads in Iowa. But Gingrich said pointedly that he understands the film looks at "where they apparently looted the companies."
"He owes us a report on his stewardship" in the private sector, Gingrich said.
A pro-Gingrich political action committee, Winning Our Future, will purchase $3.4 million in air time in South Carolina to run ads, said Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich aide who is helping lead the effort.
Gingrich acknowledged he was stepping away from his pledge to run a positive campaign.
"This is not my first preference for how to run the campaign," he said. "But I don't believe in unilateral disarmament. And I don't believe if the other person sets the standard of being very tough that you can back off or you look like you can't defend yourself.
"And whoever is going to end up competing against Barack Obama is going to have to be very tough."