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As GOP race’s pace quickens, Romney’s on top — and the target

By Steven Thomma and David Lightman, McClatchy Newspapers –

CONCORD, N.H. — The Republican presidential campaign shifted to New Hampshire on Wednesday with one key question hanging over it: Can Mitt Romney deliver the landslide win his polls and organization suggest is within reach, or will he fall to sharp new attacks and the state’s history of turning against the winner of Iowa’s caucuses?

The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts rolled into Manchester on Wednesday, looking for a big win Tuesday in his New England backyard to make him the first non-incumbent Republican ever to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, which could propel him toward the presidential nomination.

“My goodness, what a squeaker,” he joked about his ever-so-narrow win in Iowa over former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, an eight-vote margin out of about 60,000 cast for the two men.

“Do you think we can have more than an eight-vote margin here in New Hampshire?” he added. “I’m gonna try.”

Polls suggest he’s in good shape here, holding a huge lead over his nearest competitors. A new Suffolk University poll of New Hampshire released Wednesday showed him with 43 percent, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 14 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 9 percent, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 7 percent and Santorum with 6 percent. It was conducted Monday and Tuesday, before the Iowa results were known.

But in one sign that opinion could shift, Romney received only a tepid response at his rally in Manchester.

How the Iowa results impact New Hampshire and the rest of the campaign started shaking out on several fronts, including sharp attacks on Romney and developments that could help consolidate conservative voters against him, or keep them divided as they were in Iowa.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota dropped out of the race after a dismal sixth-place Iowa finish. She did not endorse another candidate.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry decided to stay in the race less than 12 hours after saying he’d reassess his campaign following a disappointing fifth-place finish in Iowa. He’ll attend weekend debates in New Hampshire but concentrate on South Carolina, hoping to score Jan. 21 in the first primary contest in his native South.

In New Hampshire, Santorum kept a low public profile after his strong performance in Iowa, holding an evening town hall meeting in Brentwood. Speaking in a packed meeting room, Santorum wasted no time in attacking President Barack Obama.

“You believe here in New Hampshire exactly what they believe in Iowa, exactly what they believe in South Carolina,” he said. “I bet you also believe that this government, under Barack Obama, is undermining that very basic principle of what America is all about. He is systematically destroying the work ethic. How? By the narcotic of government dependency.”

Earlier, Gingrich opened the campaign’s new phase with a withering attack on Romney, an apparent payback for the $3 million barrage of negative ads against him in Iowa mounted by Romney and a pro-Romney independent group. That assault crushed Gingrich’s support and helped push him from the Iowa lead in mid-December to a distant fourth-place finish in the caucuses.

Abandoning the commitment he made in Iowa to avoid negative campaigning, Gingrich said he’ll draw a stark contrast between his record and Romney’s, which he characterized as moderate or liberal.

“Gov. Romney was first an independent, then repudiated Reagan-Bush, then voted for Paul Tsongas, the most liberal candidate in the ’92 campaign, then ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy in 1994, then became a moderate to run for governor in 2002,” Gingrich said.

He said that his opponent’s “Romneycare” Massachusetts health care law called for state-funded abortions, and that Romney had appointed liberal judges and raised taxes on business.

“Gov. Romney ran a largely negative campaign of falsehoods. … The fact is three out of four Republicans rejected it,” Gingrich told reporters in Concord. “He’ll do fairly well here. But the fact is, Gov. Romney in the end has a very limited appeal in a conservative party.”

Gingrich ridiculed Romney’s Iowa win as weak, saying he barely improved his vote total from four years earlier despite four years of work and millions of dollars spent on TV.

“His additional 66 votes over 2008 came at a cost of about $100,000 a vote,” he said — although a check of the final votes showed that Romney actually received six fewer votes in Iowa this year than he won there in 2008.

Romney, who appeared with two-time New Hampshire primary winner Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who endorsed Romney enthusiastically, did not directly address Gingrich’s broadside. Romney aides said they were weighing how or whether to respond — though it’s all but certain that Gingrich will pour it on in televised debates here Saturday and Sunday.

“Romney has nearly 100 percent name recognition in this state, and his approval ratings are high. These people have known him for years,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire political veteran and senior adviser to Romney’s campaign.

“It’s a very hard case to make (against Romney) in this state,” Rath said. “These people know his record, and they watched him grow.”

He added, “Gingrich has had a rough time. A month ago, he thought he was the presumptive nominee. He’s disappointed.”

Gingrich also found himself targeted Wednesday by Paul.

The Texas congressman, who wants to pull U.S. troops back from overseas, accused Gingrich of being a “chicken hawk” who avoided military service himself but sends other people to fight now.

“You know, when Newt Gingrich was called to service in the 1960s during the Vietnam era, guess what he thought of danger? He chickened out on that and he got a deferment. He didn’t even go,” Paul said on CNN. “So right now he’s sending these young kids over there to endure the danger, and the kids over there and the military overwhelmingly support my campaign.”

“I had two children,” Gingrich said in response. “I never called for a deferment because it was automatic.”


((William Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.)

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