U.S. Republican presidential candidates criss-crossed New Hampshire in the final day of campaigning ahead of Tuesday's primary contest, with front-runner Mitt Romney aiming to solidify his perceived status as the inevitable challenger to Barack Obama later this year.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Republican candidacy, still holds a big lead in polling ahead of the party's first primary. He is widely expected to secure the nomination this time around, despite being unpopular with right-wing Tea Party movement supporters and evangelical Christians.
Speaking to a breakfast meeting of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce on Monday morning, Romney accused Obama of "changing the rules" and creating uncertainty for American business at a time when the economic recovery is most vulnerable.
"I don’t think he's a bad guy," Romney said of Obama. "I just don’t think he understands how the economy works."
Romney said people talking to him on the campaign trail assume he began his career at top CEO positions, but he insisted he started at the "entry level" and learned lessons along the way, unlike Obama, who had no real private sector experience before becoming president.
"Sometimes I don't think he likes you very much," Romney told the business audience. "I love you. I love what you do."
But the Republican also slipped during the event's question-and-answer session with a joke on health-care coverage providers that could bolster critics' arguments that Romney displays a "tin ear" for the everyday concerns of Americans.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," he said.
The comment drew immediate fire Monday from another candidate, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who responded: "Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs."
Romney was also interrupted during Monday's event by a representative of the United Auto Workers who challenged him on his opposition to the Obama administration's bailout of General Motors a few years ago.
Despite Monday's controversy, Romney is seen as the candidate with the best shot at defeating Obama amid anger over the Democrat's handling of a still-struggling economy, his highly unpopular health care reform legislation, and soaring government spending.
"Mitt Romney's the one, without any doubt in my mind," Jane Morse, a pharmaceutical sales representative from North Hampton, N.H., told CBC News after a Sunday night rally in Exeter.
"He's not going to divide the country any more than it is now," her husband John Morse added dryly.
Romney has faced a barrage of criticism in recent days from his Republican rivals, who have cast him as a flip-flopper, a timid moderate undeserving of the party's nomination, even a CEO plunderer who profited off the backs of downsized American workers.
During back-to-back candidates' debates over the weekend, Romney defended his oft-touted record as a job creator, dismissing accusations that he oversaw a series of massive layoffs at companies controlled by the investment firm he founded, Bain Capital.
Meanwhile, the publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader, a newspaper that has already endorsed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, lambasted Romney as "a rich man with a tin ear" whose "claimed record as a fiscally conservative governor is as much of a sham as his flip-flops on social issues."
Paul rises, Santorum slumps
The barbs came as a new poll released Sunday suggested Romney's double-digit lead has dropped slightly in recent days, while support for Ron Paul has surged to push the firebrand libertarian Texas congressman into second place in the contest.
Many people leaving Romney's rally on Sunday night were forced to run a gauntlet of vocal Paul supporters on one side and Occupy New Hampshire protesters on the other, which led to some heated exchanges on the way to the school parking lot.
Suffolk University's latest two-day poll still gave Romney a 15-point lead over Paul in New Hampshire, while Huntsman was in third place with 11 per cent support among respondents.
Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China who ignored the Iowa contest to focus solely on New Hampshire as a springboard for his so-far-lacklustre campaign, has appeared awkward at times in debates and has yet to see a leap in his support numbers.
In the Sunday morning debate, however, Huntsman came swinging over a remark by Romney the night before, which he said questioned his commitment to the country because he had served as a U.S. ambassador to China under Obama.
"I put my country first," he said. "Apparently Mitt Romney doesn't believe in putting country first. He's got this bumper sticker that says … 'Believe in America.' How can you believe in America when you're not willing to serve America? That's just phoney nonsense."
He added that two of his sons are serving the country in the U.S. Navy. "They're not asking what political affiliation the president is."
Gingrich was in fourth place in the latest poll, just one point ahead of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, according to the poll, which surveyed 500 respondents on Thursday and Friday and had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
A sixth candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, left New Hampshire immediately after Sunday's debate to continue campaigning in South Carolina, which will hold its primary on Jan. 21. Polls also suggest Romney, who has received the endorsement of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, is also leading in that state.
Search for consistency and change
Santorum, known for his vocal opposition to abortion, contraception and gay rights, took a broader message of economic renewal and smaller government to New Hampshire after his surprise second-place finish in last week's Iowa caucuses, just a handful of votes behind Romney.
Outside the historic Lawrence Barn in Hollis, a stream of people crossed a two-lane road from the muddy field where their cars were parked. Most left their jackets the back seats on account of the unseasonably warm day as they attended a town hall meeting with Santorum.
Chris and Marilyn Brown told CBC News they came to the event with an open mind and liked what they heard from Santorum, whom they described as "respectful" even when faced with a pro-choice questioner, and more than a one-dimensional social conservative candidate.
The couple said they viewed Romney as the best equipped to reverse Obama's policies on the economy and health care, which they believe are taking the country in the wrong direction.
But they still expressed some concern about Romney's "consistency" as a conservative.
"My sense is that Santorum’s more consistently conservative on social issues, but Romney’s certainly said the right things from our perspective on those issues,” said Chris Brown, a financial writer.
"In my mind, I’m probably willing to compromise a little in that area to back the candidate that we feel is the most electable."
Obama, Chris Brown acknowledged, "came in and inherited a tough hand to play, and George Bush was not without sin" in the leadup to the 2008 financial crisis.
"But I think the handling of the recovery by the Obama administration has been pretty inept," he said
Marilyn Brown said she's also leaning towards Romney, but pledged to support whichever candidate emerges from the Republican process.
"We just think they will bring true change, not hope and change that Obama said last time, but true change that is necessary to turn our country around," she said.