HANOVER, N.H. — With a coveted endorsement in hand, Mitt Romney looked Tuesday to solidify his standing as the Republican to beat while Rick Perry and six other challengers hoped to derail him less than three months before the first presidential caucus and primary voting.
Eight GOP candidates were squaring off in a debate focused on the economy, by far the voters' No. 1 issue.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama — the man one of them will challenge next fall — defended his economic policies and assailed Republican foes in a visit to the general election battleground of Pennsylvania.
Hours before the candidates met in Hanover, Romney picked up New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's endorsement, which he hopes will help cement his support among the GOP establishment and nurture an image that he's the party's inevitable nominee.
Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, stood alongside as Christie declared, "I'm here in New Hampshire for one simple reason: America cannot survive another four years of Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney's the man to lead America and we need him now."
The economy was supposed to be the main topic of the GOP debate at Dartmouth College. But other issues were likely to come up if the days — and hours — leading up to it were any indication.
Minutes after accepting Christie's endorsement, Romney called on Texas Gov. Perry "to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks" from an ally who likened Romney's Mormonism to a "cult."
Perry, through a spokesman, declined to repudiate the Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, though Perry has said he disagrees with the pastor's comment and believes Romney is a Christian.
Social issues, immigration, the environment and health care also could pop up in the debate, given Romney's rivals' efforts to go after him on widespread issues in recent days.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum also were participating in the debate.
They were taking the stage with a new sense of urgency. Romney, who lost the GOP nomination in 2008, this time leads in national and state polling and is sitting on a mound of campaign cash in anticipation of a drawn-out march to the nomination.
States have scheduled their caucuses and primaries earlier than planned, meaning that there are less than 100 days for Romney's rivals to undercut him before crucial early voting.
So they've been hammering Romney on his reversals on abortion and gay rights, his support for environmental policies and his character.