Mitt Romney’s rivals sought to tarnish his image and cut into his front-runner’s status in the Republican presidential race as voters went to the polls for today’s New Hampshire primary and the candidates looked to continue their campaigns as the race moves south.
With 9 percent of the vote counted, Romney had 36 percent, Ron Paul had 25 percent, Jon Huntsman Jr. had 16 percent, Newt Gingrich had 11 percent, Rick Santorum had 10 percent and Rick Perry had almost 1 percent.
Former U.S. House Speaker Gingrich said this morning that Romney has “some very big questions to answer” about his time at Bain Capital LLC, a Boston-based private equity firm, and whether he chose profit over jobs.
“I don’t have much respect if you rig the game so you end up walking off with all the money,” Gingrich, 68, said in an interview on Bloomberg Television.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential candidate who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses by eight votes, was competing against expectations that he would win New Hampshire’s contest by a wide margin. Anything less may frustrate his efforts to show that he has enough political strength within his own party to mount a strong challenge to President Barack Obama in November’s general election.
“We’ve come a long way in New Hampshire, but we can’t take anything for granted,” Romney said in an e-mail asking supporters to “do everything in your power to make it out to your local polling place today.”
Romney made his final case to voters as most of his rivals seized on an off-the-cuff remark yesterday that he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
While Romney, 64, was referring to health-insurance companies -- not his own employees -- when he made the comments, the remarks are being used to portray him as a corporate raider because of his years in the private equity business and to undercut his argument that he’s the candidate best able to create jobs.
U.S. employers added 1.64 million workers in 2011, the most since 2006, the Labor Department said last week. Even with the gains, little headway has been made in recovering the 8.75 million jobs lost as a result of the recession that ended in June 2009.
Former Utah Governor Huntsman, 51, who has blanketed New Hampshire over the past several months and staked his campaign on a solid showing here today, pushed for a late burst of support based partly on a backlash from Romney’s “firing” comment.
“Our closing message to New Hampshire voters is about restoring trust and putting country first; Mitt Romney’s closing message is about petty politics and firing people,” said Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller in a statement that accompanied a new web video the campaign released featuring the candidate expounding on New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” motto.
U.S. Representative Paul, the third-place finisher in Iowa who is working to establish himself as Romney’s main competition, came to Romney’s defense. Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager, issued a statement blasting Gingrich, Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum for the flap, saying they had taken Romney’s quote “horribly out of context.”
The three are “using the language of the liberal left to attack private equity and condemn capitalism in a desperate and, frankly, unsavory attempt to tear down another Republican with tactics akin to those of MoveOn.org,” Benton said.
He said the trio were “employing leftist tactics because they can’t run on their questionable records and can’t distinguish themselves from Romney” on bailouts, spending, deficits and health care.
Gingrich, in a telephone conference call with South Carolina voters this afternoon, said he agreed Romney’s “firing” comments had been taken out of context by some.
“The language was a little bit clumsy and open to misinterpretation and that might raise some questions about whether he’s the right person to debate Barack Obama, which I think is an essential characteristic for this fall, but nonetheless I thought it was unfair to suggest he was actually saying he liked firing people,” said Gingrich.
Romney was favored by 37 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters surveyed in a tracking poll conducted Jan. 8-9 by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston and sponsored by 7NEWS. Paul was second with 18 percent, followed by Huntsman at 16 percent, Santorum -- the second-place finisher in Iowa -- with 11 percent and Gingrich at 9 percent. Texas Governor Perry, who is focusing on South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, drew 1 percent.
The survey showed Romney’s support eroding since last week, when he had 43 percent support in Suffolk’s poll released Jan. 2. Huntsman is on the rise, having had 9 percent in the previous poll.
Perry, who skipped campaigning in New Hampshire, told a town-hall meeting today at a retirement community in Fort Mill, South Carolina, that Bain’s dealings had hurt workers in the state.
“They were more interested in making the quick buck,” Perry said. “And that’s the Wall Street mentality. Ethics kind of get thrown out the door. And it’s all too often just about how can we make as much money as we can make in a hurry. And then walk away from the rubble that’s left.”
Perry said that while he is a capitalist, there’s a difference between that and “making money at all costs.”
Questions for Romney
Romney, stopping today at a New Hampshire polling place at Manchester’s Webster School, continued to face questions about his firing comment.
As he held a baby thrust into his arms by a supporter, a protester shouted: “Are you going to fire that baby?”
“I was talking about, as you know, insurance companies,” Romney told reporters. “We all like to get rid of our insurance companies. We don’t want Obama to tell us we can’t.”
New Hampshire voters suggested they were living up to their reputation for choosing a candidate late and changing their minds up to the final moments.
Some voters looking for an alternative to Romney said they had recently decided to back Huntsman.
“I thought he was the most middle-of-the-road Republican, and I think the fact that he was the ambassador to China under the Obama administration shows he’d be able to work with the other side,” said George Tosatti, 75, a hospital administrator, after casting his ballot for Huntsman.
Vote for Paul
Patrick Boissonneau, 30, a student who had Paul’s name tatooed on his neck, said he “came down to vote for him because I believe more in the personal liberty aspect of things.”
Romney’s rivals hope to halt his momentum in South Carolina, where socially conservative voters he has had trouble attracting hold considerable sway.
Paul, 76, e-mailed supporters telling them he was “excited about our chances to follow up on our incredible top-tier finish in Iowa with a strong showing” in New Hampshire today, and announcing he would hold a “money bomb” Jan. 14 to help him make a “strong final push in South Carolina.”
Democrats were looking to use today’s primary as an organizing tool to rally support for Obama. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said Romney’s firing comment showed he is “remarkably out of touch.”
She also set a high bar for his performance in New Hampshire. If he doesn’t draw more than 50 percent of the vote, Wasserman Schultz said, it “shows you just how deeply concerned people are and the lack of enthusiasm there is for his candidacy.”
“As they’ve gotten a closer look in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s support among Republican voters has precipitously dropped,” she said.