Stephan Savoia, Associated Press
SALEM, N.H. — Shooting past each other, Republicans Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum took aim at President Barack Obama's economic policies on Thursday as they jockeyed for support in New Hampshire and courted voters in conservative bellwether South Carolina.
The newly recast field finds Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, reaching for a decisive victory in New Hampshire to solidify his status as the putative Republican front-runner. At a morning stop in Salem, N.H., before heading to South Carolina, Romney labeled Obama a "crony capitalist" and a "job killer."
Santorum, under new scrutiny after a strong showing in Iowa's kickoff caucuses, also focused on Obama as he tried to sound every bit the nominee.
"I don't think most Americans believe the vision of America that Barack Obama is selling," he told Rotarians in Manchester. "We have a president who doesn't understand us."
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses, chose to hammer at Romney, casting him as a captive of Wall Street who won't bring about the change the nation needs. Hoping for a breakout, Huntsman offered himself as the underdog for New Hampshire voters to take "from the back of the pack" and move to the foreground.
Newt Gingrich, still reeling from a barrage of negative ads unleashed on him by a pro-Romney super PAC, bluntly dismissed Romney's efforts to cast himself as the most electable challenger to Obama.
"The fact is, Gov. Romney has a very limited appeal in a conservative party," the former House speaker said, setting aside his pledge to run a positive campaign and sharpening his criticism of Romney.
A pro-Gingrich super PAC sought to undercut Arizona Sen. John McCain's endorsement of Romney, posting online an ad the 2008 Republican presidential nominee ran against Romney when the two competed for the party's nomination.
"Mitt Romney's flip-flops truly are masterpieces," said the ad revived by Winning Our Future.
Romney pocked a big endorsement Wednesday from McCain, and the two appeared together onstage at rallies in Manchester and Peterborough. McCain won New Hampshire's primary in 2000 and 2008 and remains popular with Republicans and independents, who can vote in the primary.
Just two days after the first votes were cast in the nomination fight, McCain said Thursday it's time to "get this thing done with as quickly as possible and get into the main event" — defeating Obama. The Arizona Republican, who made a plea for Republicans to quickly coalesce around Romney on CBS' "The Early Show," was set to appear with Romney and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley at campaign events in that state later Thursday.
Romney, looking past his GOP rivals, has a new TV ad in South Carolina that criticizes Obama for adopting "un-American" economic policies that hurt workers in the state and of packing a government labor panel with "union stooges."
Romney's GOP rivals had no intention of quickly ceding the nomination fight.
The Iowa caucuses did little to clarify what has long been a fractured GOP field, with Romney and Santorum battling almost to a tie in that state and libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul placing third. The result demonstrated anew the difficulty Republicans have had in choosing between Romney, a former business executive who governed as a moderate, and a more dynamic, conservative alternative.
For now, Santorum has taken on that role.
The former Pennsylvania senator lost by just eight votes to Romney in Iowa, a strong showing due to a socially conservative message and dedicated politicking across the state's 99 counties. His challenge now is to raise money and build a strong enough organization to cement his status as a durable challenger to Romney.
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