MANCHESTER, N.H. — The race for the Republican presidential nomination has two tiers in this state, which votes Tuesday in the first 2012 primary. Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, can take a giant step forward with a big win here, while his five major challengers are vying for the mantle of chief Romney opponent.
If Romney wins as expected, he would become the first non-incumbent Republican to take both the Iowa caucuses, where he eked out an eight-vote victory last week, and this state's primary. The only suspense for Romney appears to be concern over the margin of his victory. On Monday he held an average margin of 18.7 percentage points over his next-closest competitor in six recent New Hampshire polls, according to the RealClearPolitics website.
If Romney's final margin is much below that and he's perceived as slipping, his path forward could get bumpier. But a new Suffolk University/7News survey taken Sunday and Monday found Romney's support at 37 percent, well ahead of runner-up Texas Rep. Paul at 18 percent. The survey was taken after the weekend's back to back debates.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to concentrate on this state, was up to 6 percent. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who narrowly lost Iowa to Romney, had 11 percent, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed with 9 percent.
Romney's rivals' attacks are getting sharper, and some of his statements have given them fresh ammunition. On Monday he got a sample of the heat headed his way, particularly after he told a Nashua business group, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," referring to health insurers who provide inadequate coverage.
Huntsman pounced. "It seems that Gov. Romney believes in putting politics first. Gov. Romney enjoys firing people — I enjoy creating jobs," the Utahan told a Concord audience.
On Sunday, Romney said, "I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered if I was going to get a pink slip."
Opponents noted that Romney is the wealthy son of a former Michigan governor and auto executive and co-founded the Bain Capital private equity firm, which made him quite wealthy even as it often restructured firms by downsizing their workforces.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is not campaigning here, said at an Anderson, S.C., breakfast that it was the "ultimate insult" for Romney to claim he's sensitive to laid-off workers' plights.
"I have no doubt Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips — whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out," Perry said.
Romney also faced new reports questioning his record as a job creator.
A Wall Street Journal analysis found that when Romney was a top executive at Bain, 22 percent of the companies Bain invested in "either filed for bankruptcy reorganization or closed their doors by the end of the eighth year after Bain invested, sometimes with substantial job losses." The Journal noted that filing for bankruptcy doesn't necessarily end in business failure, and that many of Bain's companies emerged from the process healthier.
A Bain spokesman told the Journal that its findings were "inaccurate and misleading," and Romney has said that one cannot expect all investments to be successful.
Rivals still attacked.
"It's pretty clear to me in the next week or so Mitt Romney is going to have to have a fairly long press conference and he's going to have to face a lot of questions," Gingrich told a Manchester news conference.
Romney touted his business record Monday before about 300 people at a Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast. He didn't respond to the Bain critics.
He contrasted his views with those of Santorum, who supports a special zero tax rate for manufacturers as a way to bring back high-paying factory jobs from overseas.
Romney emphasized getting rid of labor unions and union work rules. "If we want to get it back in New Hampshire, and I do, we're going to have to become 'right to work' and get competitive," Romney said.
He also said he wants more competition among health insurers.
More choice, he said, "means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, if someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say I'm going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me."
Romney later tried to clarify the remarks, saying they were taken out of context and were meant to reflect his view that people should have choices when they decide on an insurer.
The race for second place behind Romney is volatile. This state's voters have a history of deciding late, and a WMUR/University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll Jan. 5-8 found that only 44 percent had made a definite choice.
"All of the candidates behind Romney have a good chance of finishing anywhere between second and fifth place," said survey center director Andrew Smith.
This state's voters often surprise pundits. Ronald Reagan's landslide in the 1980 GOP primary stunned George H.W. Bush, and few figured that Arizona Sen. John McCain would bury George W. Bush in 2000 like he did.
A new Pew Research Center survey found many Republican voters unenthusiastic about the entire field. Only 51 percent of Republican or GOP-leaning voters rated their candidates excellent or good, while 44 percent called them fair or poor.
One, Matt Ide of Hollis, who owns a small Internet business, was torn between Romney and Paul.
"We should have governors, not senators or people like that who have no executive experience. How do you run an organization?" Ide said. He saw Paul as a message candidate.
"I like a lot of the things that Paul stands for on the financial side. We're really close to a financial cliff," he said. But Paul winning? "It will never happen."
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