ROCHESTER, N.H. – Mitt Romney was poised to capture the nation's first primary election Tuesday, despite stepped-up attacks by his Republican opponents and slippage among voters here.
Polls showed Romney's standing in the Granite State sliding to 33% from 43% in the past five days, according to a Suffolk University/7News tracking poll. Romney had spent the past two days explaining and defending an offhand comment that he likes "being able to fire people."
When he reached out for a supporter's infant daughter at a polling place, someone in the crowd shouted, "Are you going to fire the baby?"
Romney waded through a crowd of supporters, detractors and media at a polling place in Manchester, where he defended his ill-chosen comment Monday that drew instant ridicule from his rivals. "I was talking about, as you know, insurance companies," he said. "We all like to get rid of our insurance companies."
Still, he continued to hold a healthy lead, according to the poll. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was second at 20% and former Utah governor Jon Huntsman third at 13%. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who came in second to Romney by just eight votes in Iowa last week, received 10%.
In Rochester, a former mill town of 30,000 people, John Tibbets, 71, voted for Newt Gingrich "because he's going to straighten out America. He ain't like these other wiffly-waffly guys." Tibbets' priorities: "Secure the border and be tough on terrorism. … If Iran gets nukes, I think we should nuke them. Because if we don't, I think they'll do it to us."
Gingrich — an underdog in New Hampshire's primary — arrived at a polling site in Manchester with his wife, Callista, to greet voters but was met instead by a crush of reporters. He compared the crowd to Mardi Gras except "not nearly as much fun." He was visiting polling places throughout the day.
The former House speaker said he expected to finish in the top three or four among the field of six serious candidates, but predicted it would be Romney who would be hurt the most — by falling short of expectations. New Hampshire was expected to be Romney's stronghold, Gingrich said, and "I don't think it's going to be much of a fortress."
He said he would continue to criticize Romney for his work with the Bain Capital investment firm, saying it made money even on companies that went bankrupt.
Critics pulled Romney's firing quote out of context to reinforce a withering assault on him for his role in the private equity firm that took over companies and sometimes laid off workers. Gingrich was an unlikely defender of Romney on Tuesday saying the comment is being used out of context and it's not fair to attack him over it.
But the former House speaker did say it raised questions about how well Romney might be able to campaign in the fall.
"Now he was clumsy the way he said it," Gingrich said on MSNBC's Morning Joe. "In debate, do you really want someone who is that clumsy?"
"I'd be a much more effective debater," said Gingrich, who has emerged as Romney's fiercest critic on the Republican campaign trail after a dispute over negative campaigning in Iowa.
At Rochester Middle School, ward supervisor Jason Hamann said early-morning turnout was lighter than he expected: 108 people voted in the first hour and a half that the polls were open. He said he had expected 200.
Shannon Taber, 37, a bartender, voted for Romney because she said she's looking for "basically someone who can beat (President) Obama."
She said she likes Romney's experience and the fact that polls show he's got support. As a Republican, she feels "it's time to band together and pick someone."
Kevin Langelier, 42, an unemployed accountant, said he liked Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts. "He's got a successful career as a businessman and I think he can do a lot for the economy," Langelier said. "I think he can beat Obama. I don't think anyone else is electable."
In the tiny town of Dixville Notch, which voted shortly after midnight, Romney and Huntsman tied for first place with two votes each. Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul got one vote each. Santorum, who rocketed to prominence with a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa, said there wasn't time enough to capitalize on that momentum before New Hampshire's primary and that he would be content to pull a double-digit percentage of the votes. There are lots of contests still to come, Santorum said, speaking to reporters between shaking voters' hands at a Manchester polling place. "There's going to be lots of opportunities to rise and fall," he said.
With the quirky, libertarian-leaning Paul running a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire polls for much of the year, third place may become a highly coveted spot for the rest of the field hoping to prove they can keep up with Romney.
Romney's ill-timed comment the day before the primary came at a breakfast event in Nashua, when he told an audience that his health care plan would allow them to dismiss insurers and health care providers.
"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."
The Democratic National Committee immediately sent out a video showing the comment and Romney's GOP rivals jumped on it.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs," Huntsman told reporters in Concord, adding: "It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now."
Romney later said his comments were being misrepresented. "We should be able to choose the insurance companies of our choice," he said. "We should not have to have one foisted upon us by the presidentt and Obamacare." The former Massachusetts governor also defended the investment firm he founded, Bain Capital, calling criticism of it an attack on free enterprise more likely to come from Obama and "Democrats on the left."
Independents are allowed to vote in the primary, which will help decide whether a candidate like Santorum who has a sharp focus can appeal to a broader electorate, as would be required in a successful general election. On the other side, Huntsman is relying upon independents and moderate Republicans to fuel a late surge to relevancy. Polls suggested Huntsman may be on the rise, but New Hampshire voters will decide if it's too little, too late. He could be pushed out of the nomination race if he finishes below third place in the six-man field.
A former ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman spent the final 48 hours trying to capitalize on a notable debate exchange with Romney. A relentless critic of Obama, Romney had criticized Huntsman for serving in Obama's administration. Huntsman countered that he had put his country ahead of partisan politics.
Huntsman aired a new television ad highlighting his call for national unity and adopted a new campaign slogan, borrowing "Country First" from the 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain. Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the Romney bashing that intensified over the past few days from South Carolina, where he's been campaigning before the next primary there. He compared his GOP rival and the private equity firm he once headed to "vultures" who go after ailing companies as their prey.
"They're basically just vultures," Perry said, according to MSNBC's First Read blog. They wait "for companies to get sick; they swoop in; they eat the carcass." Perry has staked his candidacy on portraying himself as the Washington and Wall Street outsider in the GOP field. He's banking on support from social conservatives, who play a key role in South Carolina primaries.
Perry already had South Carolina campaign events Tuesday in Rock Hill and Fort Mill, and will host another one Tuesday night at a barbecue joint in Leesville. Meanwhile the "super PAC" supporting Romney is going big in Florida, bringing their total spending so far in the presidential campaign to "$7 million and counting."
MSNBC reported ad spending figures in the First Read blog on Tuesday. The cable network is partnering with Smart Media Group Delta, an ad-tracking firm, to determine spending by these independent political action committees.
Restore Our Future, the super PAC supporting Romney, has put down $1.7 million in Florida, which holds its primary on Jan. 31. The group invested heavily in Iowa and ran ads attacking Gingrich, causing him to finish fourth in last week's caucuses.
The spending by Restore Our Future, which is run by former aides to the Massachusetts governor, is double the amount spent so far on ads by Make Us Great Again, a super PAC supporting Perry. By comparison, MSNBC reports, Romney's campaign has spent $5.5 million in advertising. The figures don't include a $3.4 million buy in South Carolina by Winning Our Future, the super PAC backing Gingrich.
Super PACs can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money from wealthy individuals, corporations and unions. Under the law, they cannot coordinate their activities with the candidates they support.