Mitt Romney’s Republican presidential rivals sought to slow his campaign momentum, blasting the former Massachusetts governor as too moderate ahead of a primary election he is heavily expected to win.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who came in a mere eight votes behind Romney in this week’s Iowa caucuses, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul attacked Romney on Thursday as a less-than-reliable conservative too timid to combat unemployment.
“Don’t settle for less than America needs,” said Santorum, the latest of Romney’s rivals to surge in the polls as another candidate faded.
Romney is the favorite choice of the Republican mainstream, which sees him as the candidate best suited to challenge President Barack Obama in the November election. The party mainstream believes Romney, with his executive experience as governor and businessman, will best resonate with voters nationally who are upset by America’s slow economic recovery.
Romney is all but certain to win the Jan. 10 primary election in New Hampshire, where voters tend to be more moderate and where he owns a holiday home.
But Romney has been unable to grow past 25 percent in national opinion polls, as many Republican voters around the country find him insufficiently conservative on abortion, health care and other issues. Their beliefs create a natural opening for Santorum ─ a social conservative with strong views against abortion and gay marriage.
He all but ignored his Republican rivals as he campaigned in New Hampshire and South Carolina. Instead, he criticized Obama as a “crony capitalist. He’s a job killer.”
His more conservative rivals fought to hold down Romney’s vote totals in New Hampshire, then knock him off stride 11 days later in South Carolina, the first Southern primary of the year.
“Gradually you are going to see we have a difference of opinion about which will be the last conservative standing,” Gingrich told reporters as he campaigned in New Hampshire. “But I think you’ll eventually come down to one conservative and Governor Romney and he’ll continue to get 25 percent.”
Also vying to emerge as Romney’s chief rival were Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who won the endorsement of The Boston Globe on Thursday, marking the second time Massachusetts’ largest newspaper has snubbed Romney, its former governor.
The former Utah governor, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, is counting on a strong finish in Tuesday’s primary to stay in the Republican race while Texas Gov. Rick Perry awaited South Carolina.
Gingrich unveiled a new television commercial aimed at voters in New Hampshire and South Carolina that cited a review of Romney’s jobs program as timid and nearly identical in part to the president’s.
Ironically, in a year in which polls show the economy is overwhelmingly the top issue for voters, the first two contests are in states with low joblessness ─ 5.7 percent in Iowa and 5.4 percent in New Hampshire.
That all changes a week later.
South Carolina’s unemployment was 9.9 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 42nd among the states and more than a full percentage point higher than the national average.
Santorum’s aides say he raised $1 million in online fundraising the day after his second-place finish in Iowa, and the campaign sought to show momentum by announcing the support of a conservative anti-tax tea party leader in New Hampshire and Catholicvote.org, an online organization.
Paul for some reason was absent after a third-place finish in Iowa. He was scheduled to arrive in New Hampshire on Friday, in time to campaign and participate in a pair of weekend debates.
Perry, who finished fifth in Iowa, was bypassing New Hampshire to try and resurrect his chances in South Carolina.