CONCORD, N.H. — Mitt Romney faces concerted attacks from fellow Republicans who will be trying to knock him out of the front-runner position during a tonight debate in the state that traditionally holds the first primary election.
A strong early showing can give a boost to a candidate in the state-by-state presidential nominating contests. The winner will take on Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.
Romney will be on friendly ground at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, a neighbour to Massachusetts where he served as governor.
With the Republican field still in flux and Romney leading — but without broad-based support in the party — he likely will be targeted by fellow candidates who think they can gain ground by attacking him for his centrist political record.
But he picked up a key endorsement in the hours before the debate, winning the endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
Romney stood with Christie as he said he was backing Romney because the United States could not endure a second term of Obama’s leadership.
Christie had been considering a presidential run in 2012, but decided against becoming a candidate last week. Christie’s financial supporters had been waiting for him to decide before backing a different candidate.
The New Jersey governor’s endorsement will send much of that cash to Romney. Romney also stands to benefit from the budget-cutting Christie’s ties to the tea party, a group of conservative voters that Romney has struggled to win over.
A strong showing in the debate is crucial to Romney’s main rivals: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who got off to a strong start but has plunged in the polls after weak performances in previous debates, and Herman Cain, a businessman who ran a nationwide chain of pizza restaurants. Cain’s recent ascendance in the polls has surprised a field which saw him as a marginal challenger when the nominating contest began.
Romney also used the occasion to call for Perry to repudiate the contention of one of his supporters, a fundamentalist Baptist minister in Texas, who said Romney was not a Christian. The pastor said Mormonism was a cult.
Perry, through a spokesman, refused Romney’s request to disavow the minister.
The debate at Dartmouth College will focus on the economy, the central issue in Romney’s campaign, and one on which Obama is deeply vulnerable.
But Romney’s rivals could attack on a wider front. His rivals readied criticism on health care policy, cultural issues and environmental positions. Even with a focus on the economy and voters most concerned about 9.1 per cent unemployment, there was no chance Romney would be able to dodge questions about his overall record.
“Even the richest man can’t buy back his past,” Perry’s campaign said in a web video that describes Romney, a multimillionaire businessman, as the inspiration for Obama’s national health care overhaul.
Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, whose candidacy has faded after early success in a straw poll in Iowa, urged conservative voters not to support a candidate who isn’t one of them.
“It’s not good enough to settle for anyone but Barack Obama,” she said while campaigning in New Hampshire on Monday.
Even lower-profile rivals tried to knock Romney off his game.
“Simply advocating more ships, more troops and more weapons is not a viable path forward,” former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, said in a foreign policy speech that was a direct rebuttal to one Romney gave last week that called for more investment in military hardware.
Both Perry and Bachmann have tried to pitch themselves as the conservative alternative to Romney, who as Massachusetts governor signed into law a health care bill with a mandate to purchase insurance. That’s also part of Obama’s reform plan, which is loathed by conservatives. However, those candidates have stumbled in the polls.
While New Hampshire has yet to schedule its primary, traditionally the first in the nominating process, it is likely to come before mid-January. That means there are fewer than 100 days for the newcomers to make inroads in a state where Romney is well known, owns a vacation home and won a second-place finish in his 2008 presidential bid.