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Republicans take last shot

Last modified: 1/10/2012 12:00:00 AM
On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, the Republican challengers made their closing pitches across the state as they sought to gain on front-runner Mitt Romney, who found himself clarifying a remark he made during the day about firing people.

Romney has led the polls by a substantial margin throughout the run-up to today's first-in-the-nation primary, and his narrow victory in Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses - despite not campaigning there for much of last year - has only served to solidify his preeminence. Recent polls show him with double the support of his closest rival, Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Taking questions yesterday at a Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast, Romney was asked how health insurance could be made more affordable for individuals and small businesses.

Making it easier for people to buy insurance themselves, rather than through their workplaces, would allow them to keep a policy for many years and give the insurer a reason to help them stay healthy, he said. And the easier it is to buy insurance, the easier it would be for individuals to drop an insurer who provides poor service, he added.

"It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them," Romney said. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."

Members of the audience laughed, while members of the press corps looked at each other. As far back as his campaign for U.S. Senate in 1994, political opponents have used Romney's tenure as head of Bain Capital, the private equity firm, to cast him as a ruthless capitalist who made his fortune investing in companies that laid off their workers.

After his next appearance, at a metal fabricating company in Hudson, the campaign staff made him available for questioning by reporters for the first time since before the Iowa caucuses. Romney insisted he had been referring solely to the question of health insurance.

"I was speaking about insurance companies and the need to be able to make a choice, and my comments entirely reflected that discussion," Romney said. "We should be able to choose the insurance company of our choice. We should not have to have it forced upon us by the president."

Pressed about how his comment would be received, Romney said he would campaign from his own experiences and let voters judge him against President Obama.

"If you think that I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people . . . that would make me a very different person than I am," he said. "I am going to tell people my experiences in life, and I realize they are not the same as everybody I speak with, but I am going to tell you about myself."

Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who has poured all his time and resources into New Hampshire with modest poll numbers to show for it, latched onto Romney's initial comment at a campaign stop later in the day.

"It's become abundantly clear over the last couple of days what differentiates Governor Romney and me," Huntsman told reporters before speaking to cheering supporters in Concord's Eagle Square. "Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs."

Huntsman's last-day blitzkrieg started in Lebanon and continued on to Claremont, Henniker, Concord, Dover and Nashua. He traded his usual stump speech and town hall events for quick stops at diners and bakeries, and his later stops were packed with overflow crowds of supporters and news media.

Outside Daddypops Tumble Inn Diner in Claremont, Huntsman was greeted by Diane Clemons, a retired teacher from Acworth.

"Glad to see you in this part of the state. . . . You guys, you're about the only one," she told Huntsman.

Clemons, an independent, was still deciding between Huntsman and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. After meeting Huntsman, Clemons said she was leaning toward voting for him. Several polls - including surveys by Suffolk University and Public Policy Polling - showed Huntsman rising into third place in the campaign's final days.

"Maybe we'll do better than that," his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, said with a smile at Mary's Bakery & Cafe in Henniker.

Huntsman ended the day with a rally in Exeter, in the same town hall where he officially announced his candidacy June 21. Surrounded by 500 supporters, he pumped his fists with uncharacteristic fervor and painted Romney as a candidate who puts "politics first." The crowd chanted "Country first. Country first," a slogan adopted by Huntsman in recent days.

Newt Gingrich also peppered his speeches throughout the day with swipes at Romney. At stops in Dover, Manchester, Nashua and Hudson, the former House speaker told voters he's not going negative, but rather drawing a clear distinction between himself as a Reagan conservative and Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate."

"We're going to tell the truth, and we're going to tell it in a comparative way," he said.

Gingrich said Romney "ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy" in 1994, voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992 and comes from the "same culture" as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. If Republicans want to beat President Obama, Gingrich said, they need to vote for a true conservative to mark an even greater contrast with Obama's "radical" positions. He reiterated that he worked with then-President Bill Clinton to balance the budget, reform welfare and reduce the deficit.

Speaking to a throng of reporters after a town hall in Manchester, Gingrich questioned Romney's legacy at Bain Capital.

"Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?" he said. "Or is that in fact somehow a little bit of a flawed system? And so I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods and leaving behind a factory that should be there."

Romney contended his opponents were challenging free enterprise when they attacked his career. He said he was happy to describe his record at Bain.

"As we'll find out, free enterprise will be on trial," Romney said. "I thought it was going to come from the president, from the Democrats, from the left, but instead it's coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others."

Throughout the day, Romney pitched himself one last time to primary voters as the candidate prepared to turn around the economy through his understanding of business and his belief in limited government.

At his final event, a rally in a school auditorium in Bedford, Romney said his plans for getting people back to work and limiting the size of government would not only help the economy but restore the nation to its founding principles.

"I really think this is a campaign about the soul of America," Romney said.

Santorum also took shots at Romney, though often indirectly. At a town hall meeting in Somersworth, he didn't mention his rival by name, instead criticizing "that guy who's leading in the polls" for running an overly orchestrated campaign.

"I have no intention of hiring a pollster in this campaign," he said, urging voters not to vote for a candidate "because it's his turn" to win. Romney competed in the New Hampshire primary four years ago, losing to the eventual nominee, Sen. John McCain.

Santorum's hardline social conservatism served him well in Iowa, where he fell eight votes short of defeating Romney, but led to testy exchanges on the trail here over the past week. He stuck to his economic message yesterday, telling voters that government policies to promote more domestic manufacturing will help revive the economy and restore a path to prosperity for workers without a college education.

"This is an important plan for blue-collar workers, for small-town America," he said during a town hall meeting at the Elks Lodge in Salem.

Santorum has repeatedly faced questions in New Hampshire about his ardent opposition to gay marriage, which he compares to polygamy. In the final hours of his Granite State campaign, he cast himself as the conservative alternative to Romney along economic lines, citing a Wall Street Journal review that described his economic plan as "bolder" than Romney's.

"People ask me, what's resonating out there?" he said in Nashua, where about 100 people braved the cold to hear him speak on the football field at Rivier College.

The answer, Santorum said, is "an economic plan that focuses on making sure that we don't leave people behind in this economy." He proposed to simplify the tax code, repeal costly regulations on businesses and eliminate the corporate tax for manufacturers - changes he said would create jobs and social mobility for American workers.

Santorum continued to draw contrasts between his philosophy and that of President Obama, whom he said believes every American should go to college.

"What intellectual snobbery is that?" he said.

Santorum's wife, Karen, joined the candidate at his campaign stops yesterday, as did two of their seven children, Elizabeth and Daniel. After the events in Nashua and Salem, the Santorums stopped by MaryAnn's Diner in Derry, where they were hounded by so many reporters that the restaurant's owner ordered all cameras out of the dining area.

Paul also struggled to deal with yesterday's media crush, and the format of his events frustrated some voters who wanted more interaction with the candidate.

At MoeJoe's restaurant in Manchester, Paul walked in one door, spoke briefly to high school students from Massachusetts, and then walked out another door, flanked on all sides, at all times, by media members. Karen Heller of Manchester tried to fight her way through the cameras and microphones barricading Paul while he spoke with Fox News.

"The voters are more important than all these press," she yelled. Paul's next event was supposed to be a living room party for home-schooling families in Hollis, but interest spiked so quickly the hosts reserved a large room at the Lawrence Barn Community Center. He called it an early day, with his last public event a 2 p.m. visit to the Timberland headquarters in Stratham.

After ramping up attacks on Gingrich and Santorum over the past week, Paul didn't lash out at any of his opponents yesterday. Instead, he sought to dispel stereotypes of libertarians. Paul ran for president as a member of the Libertarian Party in 1988, and his philosophy hasn't changed much since his return to the Republican Party.

"One of the shortcomings we come up against, whether we call ourselves libertarians, constitutionalists or conservatives, is that we compete with people who are well-motivated and they believe themselves to be humanitarians," he said.

"Those of us who believe the market ought to work and protecting liberty is the most important, they call us cold-hearted."

The government always starts with the best of intentions, he said in Hollis, but "if their programs don't work and ours do, wouldn't it be logical to conclude that we are the true humanitarians, not them?"

Today's turnout is still an open question. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has estimated 250,000 will make it to the polls on the Republican side, but Natalia Shevin, a 17-year-old Democrat from the Bronx, said her experience with the Paul campaign this weekend highlighted indecision and fatigue among Granite State voters.

Shevin, who traveled to the state as part of a school trip, was wearing a T-shirt that listed every member of Congress who voted against the Iraq war in 2003. She said Paul's opposition to the invasion was reason enough for her to spend two days in his camp.

Working the phones for Paul on Sunday night, Shevin said prospective voters were less than receptive.

"Lots of people still said they were undecided. I think of the 45 people I called, maybe three said they would positively be voting," she said. "Trying to persuade people is definitely difficult, because they get those calls all the time and they don't want to hear from us anymore."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who is polling at 1 percent here, spent yesterday in South Carolina, where he has kicked off a two-week bus tour after finishing fifth in Iowa. Besides two debates this weekend, he has not campaigned in New Hampshire since Nov. 30. Local spokesman Paul Young said yesterday he expects Perry will exceed his projected poll numbers.

(Staff writers Karen Langley, Maddie Hanna, Ben Leubsdorf, Molly A.K. Connors, Sarah Palermo and Tricia Nadolny contributed to this story.)


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