MANCHESTER, N.H. — Despite this weekend’s debate doubleheader in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney’s rivals all but conceded defeat Friday in the state’s primary next week, looking instead to South Carolina as their best chance to slow his march to the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney campaigned in both states, prominent party leaders by his side, President Barack Obama on his mind.
Giving no ground when the government reported the creation of 200,000 new jobs in December, Romney said America deserves better than the economic results Obama has delivered. “Thirty-five consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent is no cause for celebration,” he said in a written statement.
Republican rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were no more inclined to applaud Obama for the drop in unemployment to its lowest level in nearly three years. But they had other worries, including a new survey that suggested Romney’s narrow victory this week in Iowa’s caucuses has sent his support soaring in South Carolina.
The three men share a debate stage Saturday night and again Sunday morning with the other three surviving contenders, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Texas Gov., Rick Perry and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Ordinarily, the week between lead-off Iowa and New Hampshire is one of the most intense of the entire president campaign. That hasn’t been as true this year in New Hampshire, given Romney’s four years as governor of next-door Massachusetts, his numerous campaign trips here and the reaffirming victory in Iowa. With only three days remaining until the first-in-the-nation primary, television advertising was relatively modest, with Paul, Romney and a committee supporting Huntsman the only entities spending significant sums.
Paul did lash out at Santorum after flying into the state.
“He brags about being for a balanced budget amendment but never did anything about it,” Paul said of Santorum’s time in the U.S. Senate. “He voted four or five times to raise the debt ceiling. He voted to double the size of the Department of Education.”
Campaigning in Concord, Huntsman was asked whether the other candidates had “clawed their way to the right,” leaving him as the centrist in the race. He called himself a realist. “We have to draw from ideas that are doable and not so outlandishly stupid that they create a lot of political infighting and finger-pointing and never, ever in 1,000 years are going to get done,” he said.
Perry unveiled a new commercial for stations in South Carolina, as did a group that backs Santorum.
Perry’s stresses his upbringing as the son of tenant farmers and mentions his time as a pilot in the Air force, years working on the family farm with his father and his marriage to his high school sweetheart. “The values I learned served me well as governor of Texas and will continue to guide me as president,” the ad says.
The pro-Santorum spot calls the former Pennsylvania senator “the principled conservative … the conservative we can trust.”
That was a relatively polite attempt to distinguish Santorum from Gingrich, Perry and the others vying to emerge as Romney’s chief rival, and from the former Massachusetts governor as well.
Santorum himself was more blunt. “The only way Republicans lose is if we screw this up and nominate another moderate who has taken multiple positions on every major issue of our time,” he wrote supporters in a fundraising appeal.
The former senator finished a surprisingly strong second in the Iowa caucuses, coming within eight votes of victory. But he has little time to try and convert that into a campaign organization in New Hampshire, and some of his campaign events have turned testy.
In a school auditorium in Dublin on Friday, he faced tough questions about his positions on contraception, gays and lesbians in the military and earmarks in the federal budget.
“I know some people have been hammering away at me as an irresponsible spender,” he said. “The idea that because someone earmarked, that means they’re an Irresponsible spender is just absurd.”
He blamed Sen. John McCain, a Romney supporter, for stirring up controversy over earmarks, the designation of federal spending for specific uses or projects. And he said the Arizona senator “ran to the hills” when it came to the issue of making changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
McCain paid him no mind.
“Earmarks are the gateway to corruption,” he said in Conway, S.C., as he and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley campaigned with Romney. “Rick Santorum sponsored earmark after earmark.”
McCain told the crowd that South Carolina Republicans have the ability to settle the nomination race. “If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States,” he said.
Obama and the Democrats will test that proposition, strenuously. But there was little dispute that a victory by Romney in the first-in-the-South primary, in a state with a strong evangelical vote, would make it difficult for his Republican rivals to stop him from winning the party’s nomination.
Nor was McCain his only well-known ally in the state. South Carolina Gov. Haley, elected a year ago with the support of tea party activists, has endorsed Romney and is a constant presence as he campaigns.
Still, South Carolina’s Republican primaries have an intensity that gives way to viciousness at times, and Haley was at pains to say that Romney’s Mormon religion would not be a barrier.
“This is a state that elected a 38-year-old Indian female,” she said of herself.
A TIME/CNN/ORC poll was a sobering one for Romney’s rivals. It showed the former Massachusetts governor with 37 percent support in the state, a 17-point gain since early December. Santorum was at 19 percent, a 15-point surge, and in a statistical tie with Gingrich, who had plummeted from 43 percent support.
Associated Press writers Charles Babington, Beth Fouhy, Shannon McCaffrey and Holly Ramer in New Hampshire and Tom Beaumont and Jim Davenport in South Carolina contributed to this story. Espo reported from Washington.