Mitt Romney: An unexpected tumble on the way?
That was Monday's fevered storyline here in the Granite State, at least among political reporters desperately trying to inject some drama into a contest that Romney appears to have locked up.
The former Massachusetts governor still leads in every poll before Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, but several surveys released Monday showed his lead eroding. The Suffolk University survey, based on polling over the weekend, found that Romney had the support of 33% of likely voters -- still a big margin over second-place Ron Paul but a significant drop from the 41% Romney claimed a week ago.
And it's not only the polls. Romney's facing a barrage of newly tough criticism from rivals Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Rick Santorum, all of whom spent much of the last two days trying to cut Romney down to size (instead of each other).
In response, the normally tightly controlled Romney has blundered into a series of minor gaffes. On Sunday, he said he had empathy for the unemployed because he once worried about facing a pink slip himself. (He later explained that as a young investment banker, his job security was tenuous -- a complaint that's unlikely to draw much sympathy from the blue-collar unemployed.) On Monday, in a discussion of health insurance, Romney said: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." He was referring to insurance companies, not workers, but that didn't stop Huntsman from responding: "Gov. Romney likes firing people; I like creating jobs."
Will that matter in New Hampshire? Not much. Even the Suffolk poll showed Romney ahead of Paul by 13 percentage points, a margin that would be difficult to lose with an ill-chosen phrase or two. But it has given all those contenders for third place a new list of charges they can make against the front-runner -- and new encouragement to continue the race against Romney through January's remaining primaries in South Carolina and Florida.
--Doyle McManus, writing from Manchester, N.H.
Photo: Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney sits with volunteers Monday and calls likely voters ahead of Tuesday's primary election during a visit to his campaign headquarters in Manchester, N.H. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press