By DAVID ESPO and KASIE HUNT, Associated Press
NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stumbled down the homestretch of the New Hampshire primary on Monday, declaring, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" as his rivals intensified already fierce criticism.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has staked his candidacy on a strong showing in Tuesday's primary and has shown signs of gaining ground in recent polls.
Romney is the odds-on favorite in New Hampshire, and Huntsman as well as other Republicans who are contesting the state have generally been content to vie for second place in hopes of emerging as his main rival in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
"Second place would be a dream come true," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, as he raced through a final full New Hampshire campaign day that began before sunrise and stretched for more than 14 hours. The former Pennsylvania senator finished a surprising second in last week's Iowa caucuses, but without money for television ads he has appeared to struggle as he seeks to convert that into momentum.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won in Iowa by eight votes. A victory in New Hampshire would make him the first Republican in a contested presidential nomination battle to capture the first two races of the campaign since Iowa began leading off for the GOP in 1976.
The battle has grown increasingly rancorous in recent days - both in New Hampshire and next-up South Carolina - with Santorum, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich escalating their attacks on Romney's claim that a background in business uniquely qualifies him to help create American jobs.
At the same time, an organization that backs Gingrich has spread the word that it intends to spend $3.4 million on television ads in South Carolina that are expected to attack Romney with gusto.
"Now we'll see if he has the broad shoulders and can stand the heat," said Gingrich, relishing the battle ahead as the nominating campaign wheels South.
Romney's remark about firing people was the second jarring moment for the front-runner in the span of less than 24 hours.
On Sunday afternoon, the millionaire businessman told an audience that he understood the fear of being laid off, adding, "there were a couple of times when I was worried I was going to get pink-slipped." His aides refused to provide details.
On Monday morning, addressing the Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, he said he wants individuals to be able to choose among different health insurance policies as they seek coverage.
"That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them," he said.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I'm going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me," he added.
A few hours later, in a previously unscheduled appearance before reporters, Romney emphasized he had been talking about insurance companies.
"Things can always be taken out of context, and I understand that's what the Obama people will do. But as you know I was speaking about insurance companies and we need to be able to make a choice and my comments entirely reflected that discussion."
As for once fearing he would be fired, he said, "I came out of school, and I got an entry level position like the other people that were freshly minted MBAs, and like anybody that starts at the bottom of an enterprise you wonder, when you don't do so well, whether you're going to be able to hang onto your job."
Romney has made his career in business the core credential of his candidacy, saying that his firm, Bain Capital, created 100,000 jobs on balance as it started some firms while taking over, remaking and then spinning off others.
Gingrich told one interviewer during the day that Bain Capital "apparently looted the companies, left people totally unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars."
He wasn't asked to provide details.
But Perry, campaigning in Anderson, South Carolina, was - and did.
"If you're a victim of Bain Capital's downsizing, it's the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina to tell you he feels your pain. Because he caused it," he said.
'I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips - whether he'd have enough of them to hand out."
He cited Holson Burns Group Inc. of Gaffney, S.C., where he said 150 workers who made photo albums lost their jobs. "They looted that company," Perry said, referring to Bain Capital.
Santorum's message in New Hampshire was the same as it had been in Iowa. "Give us an opportunity to be the conservative alternative," he said.
He sidestepped questions about his proposal to reduce or eliminate Social Security benefits for wealthier beneficiaries, saying efforts by reporters to obtain specifics were "gotcha games."
Texas Rep. Ron Paul campaigned lightly in New Hampshire but unveiled a new television ad in South Carolina that took aim at Santorum.
It notes the former senator's votes against right-to-work legislation and in favor of increases in the federal debt ceiling. "Rick Santorum, a record of betrayal, another serial hypocrite who can't be trusted," it says.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst, Thomas Beaumont and Jim Davenport in South Carolina and Holly Ramer, Shannon McCaffrey, Philip Elliott and Beth Fouhy in New Hampshire contributed to this report. Espo reported from Washington.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)