Mitt Romney spoke at a lumber mill in Madison, N.H. on Monday. With his lead in the polls in New Hampshire slipping, Mr. Romney increased his attacks on Newt Gingrich.
- WINDHAM, N.H. — For much of this presidential primary season, New Hampshire has been perceived as being in Mitt Romney’s back pocket. He has a house in Wolfeboro, N.H., and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, where the news media made him a constant presence in New Hampshire living rooms.
Despite pledges to keep campaigns civil, Newt Gingrich traded some direct insults with Mitt Romney on Monday as both men were on the ground in New Hampshire.
But as in other early voting states,Newt Gingrich has unexpectedly surged in the polls here in recent weeks. While Mr. Romney still holds the lead, Mr. Gingrich tops the polls in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida, gaining enough steam that while here on Monday, he repeatedly referred to himself as the front-runner.
The stakes were evident Monday as the two candidates campaigned here and engaged in their most intense skirmishes to date. Mr. Romney demanded that Mr. Gingrich return the $1.8 million in consulting fees he had received from Freddie Mac; Mr. Gingrich, a former House speaker, cast aside a vow not to attack his opponents and responded that Mr. Romney should “give back all the money he earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain.”
Until now, the two had circled each other warily and largely refrained from direct attacks, often using surrogates instead. But with both men on the ground here, they took to swatting at each other directly, highlighting just how important the New Hampshire primary may be in framing the fight for the Republican nomination.
A victory for Mr. Gingrich in the Jan. 10 primary here could be a serious setback for Mr. Romney, regardless of who wins the Iowa caucuses a week earlier.
Expectations for Mr. Romney are so high here, said Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, that “Gingrich could lose by 10 points and still spin that as a win.”
Mr. Romney tried to lower those expectations on Monday, telling Politico that Mr. Gingrich was the front-runner “right now,” perhaps eager to hand off the front-runner label — and the scrutiny — to Mr. Gingrich. The nomination, Mr. Romney said, “is not going to be decided in just a couple of contests” and “could go for months and months.”
Still, Mr. Gingrich is sailing into the wind here. He has not raised nearly the money or built nearly the organization that Mr. Romney has. While organization in a small, politically active state like New Hampshire with a primary is less important than it is in the Iowa caucuses, it still helps in tailoring messages and getting out the vote.
Crucially for Mr. Romney, voters here believe by an overwhelming margin that he would be better able than Mr. Gingrich to beat President Obama, both in debates and in November.
In a University of New Hampshire poll of likely Republican primary voters released on Nov. 23, 57 percent said Mr. Romney could beat Mr. Obama; only 10 percent said Mr. Gingrich could. “That sense of electability is his strongest attribute,” Mr. Smith said of Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney, speaking to reporters at a lumber mill in Madison, N.H., sought to build on that strength by suggesting that temperamentally he was better suited to take on Mr. Obama and to govern.
“Just saying outrageous or incendiary things will get you a lot of kudos and drive your numbers up,” Mr. Romney said in an appeal to the state’s notably independent voters. “But it’s not going to win us the White House, and it’s not going to win us the respect of people on the other side of the aisle who we have to bring together to overcome the extraordinary challenges we have.”
On the downside for Mr. Romney, Mr. Smith said, voters do not appear excited by him. And the momentum is with Mr. Gingrich, especially since he got the endorsement of The Union Leader, New Hampshire’s influential conservative daily. He also was endorsed by Jack Kimball, an influential Tea Party activist and chairman of Herman Cain’s former campaign.
And several polls have shown a Gingrich surge. A Marist/NBC poll this month showed that his support had risen to 23 percent, up from 4 percent in October. Mr. Romney dropped in support, to 38 percent from 44 percent.
A University of New Hampshire poll from the same period also had Mr. Gingrich at 4 percent, but its latest poll has him at 15 percent, while Mr. Romney has held steady at 42 percent. In the CNN/Time/ORC polling that ended Dec. 6, the two were much closer, with Mr. Gingrich at 26 percent and Mr. Romney at 35 percent.
Mr. Gingrich, coming off positive debate reviews over the weekend, is seizing the moment to try to forge an insurgency campaign here against Mr. Romney’s more entrenched organization, which is advised by former Gov. John H. Sununu, who has not been shy about slamming Mr. Gingrich as unstable and unprincipled.
Mr. Gingrich is hiring aides from other campaigns that have sputtered, including those of Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas. And as Mr. Gingrich held a town-hall-style meeting here Monday, his aides estimated that the turnout of about 1,000 was bigger than any Mr. Romney has attracted in the state since he announced his candidacy.
In their sparring Monday, Mr. Romney threw the first jab, sending an e-mail to supporters in which he called his rival an “unreliable leader,” who had supported action on climate change.
He then suggested on Fox News that Mr. Gingrich return the consulting fees he earned from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant.
Asked about the comment by reporters during a visit to a Londonderry military contractor, Mr. Gingrich hit back.
“I love the way he and his consultants do these things,” he said, taking a swipe at Mr. Romney’s higher-priced campaign operation. “I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to then listen to him.”
Later at his event here, Mr. Gingrich struck a positive tone and said that if any of his consultants or financial donors attacked any of his “friends” running for president, he would “publicly disown them.”
Ashley Parker and Trip Gabriel contributed reporting.