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It’s Romney vs. the field in New Hampshire, and he’s way ahead

By David Lightman and Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers –

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 eight 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 in the ad 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.”

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