SALEM, N.H. — New Hampshire's Republican presidential primary campaign evolved Thursday into two different races: Mitt Romney trying to expand his huge lead, while everyone else scrambled to become the chief alternative to him.
Romney's bulge remained intact, as a Suffolk University/7News poll Tuesday and Wednesday found 41 percent of likely voters in this state's Jan. 10 primary backed the former Massachusetts governor.
The survey found no one close to being the obvious next choice. Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who did not campaign Thursday, was a solid second with 18 percent, while former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was a distant third with 8 percent. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman tied for fourth at 7 percent. Some 17 percent were undecided.
Romney's rivals attempted Thursday either to build a case for why they are the most reliable conservative, or to rip into Romney as a passionless Wall Street favorite with little feel for New Hampshire residents' economic pain.
Santorum, who trailed Romney by only 8 votes in Tuesday's Iowa caucuses, tried to separate himself from the front-runner by emphasizing differences in philosophy and temperament.
Because of his Iowa success, Santorum has piqued curiosity among New Hampshire voters. They have a history of anointing new political stars in their presidential primaries, and Santorum drew overflow crowds Thursday.
He told 200 people shoehorned into a Northfield railroad station how he grew up the grandson of a coal miner in western Pennsylvania. Santorum was clearly trying to contrast his background with Romney's. Romney is the son of a former Michigan governor and auto executive.
"My grandfather worked until he was 72. He was a very stern, tough guy," Santorum said. "He smoked everything, all day long. He had whiskey in the morning with his coffee."
Santorum also described himself as a lifelong conservative often wary of his own party's more moderate leadership. He decried the 1983 bipartisan Social Security rescue as raising taxes that were eventually used for other purposes.
"I love Ronald Reagan," Santorum said, "but he got snookered in '83."
Other Romney challengers took a harder line against him.
Gingrich was still smarting from Romney supporters' Iowa ads attacking Gingrich's record and character. Gingrich had vowed in Iowa not to go negative, but since arriving in New Hampshire, has come out swinging against Romney.
Thursday, he began airing a new TV ad in New Hampshire slamming Romney, the first time he's gone after him in an ad.
"Romney's economic plan? Timid," the ad says. "Parts of it virtually identical to Obama's failed policy. Timid won't create jobs and timid certainly won't defeat Barack Obama. Newt Gingrich's bold leadership balanced the budget, reformed welfare, helped create millions of new jobs. The Gingrich jobs plan: a powerful plan for growing our economy and creating new jobs.''
Actually, much of what Gingrich claims there to have done was achieved in no small part by then-President Bill Clinton's policies, often shaped in compromises with Gingrich.
Gingrich also criticized Santorum, saying, "In historical terms, he would be a junior partner." Santorum served two terms in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate, and was part of the Senate GOP leadership for six years before being defeated for re-election in 2006.
Also entering Thursday's fray was Huntsman, who's seeking the same center-right and independent voters as Romney. Huntsman skipped Iowa, concentrating here.
"We can't afford to have a coronation for president. We can't afford to have the establishment stand up and say, 'Here's your guy: Mr. Romney, from Massachusetts,'" Huntsman told employees of a Durham printing press company.
Romney has largely refrained from directly criticizing his rivals this week, leaving surrogates to do that.
"Our biggest job is holding on to what we've got and growing it," said senior adviser Tom Rath. Asked if the campaign plans to counter the Gingrich ad, top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens said, "I don't know. There's no plan."
On Thursday, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who's traveling with Romney around the state, took on Santorum. McCain has been a vocal critic of earmarks, or specific local projects lawmakers often tuck quietly into legislation.
McCain said he and Santorum "had very strong differences on earmarking and pork barrel spending. I believe that earmarking is a gateway drug to corruption. Senator Santorum supported it and engaged in it as much as he possibly could. I strongly disagreed with it. That was a fundamental difference we had in the Senate. But I still respect him."
Santorum has said that Congress' job is to appropriate money.
Romney personally stayed above this battle, instead using his stump speech and ads to blast President Barack Obama's economic policies. Romney engaged with about 200 voters at an early morning town hall meeting in Salem.
He then left for South Carolina, which holds the South's first primary on Jan. 21. Romney plans rallies there before returning to New Hampshire Friday evening.
Thursday he got a polite but not overly enthusiastic response from the Salem crowd; McCain, who won this state's primary in 2000 and 2008, was greeted with more rousing applause.
Among those questioning Romney was Dan Candee, who had a health care question. While Massachusetts governor, Romney signed into law a measure that requires nearly everyone in that state to obtain health care coverage. It's considered a model for the 2010 federal law, which most Republicans dislike, but Romney has said it's up to states if such a law suits them.
"If you were the governor of another state, say Utah, how would Romneycare be different? Don't people in Utah get the same diseases as people in Massachusetts?" Candee asked.
Romney explained how states differ. "I want to see us test different ideas and find the best way we can to get people coverage," he said.
Afterward, Candee, who said he's "also a Barack Obama fan," said he was "not dissatisfied" with Romney.
(William Douglas contributed to this story from New Hampshire.)
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