CONWAY, S.C. — Looking beyond an expected win in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney reached out to South Carolina voters Friday with a two-track argument that President Barack Obama has mishandled the economy and devised an "inexcusable, unthinkable" plan to shrink the U.S. military. His GOP rivals kept up an anti-Romney drumbeat in New Hampshire, hoping to chip away at his support and slow his momentum.
The Republicans' 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, teamed up with Romney in South Carolina and invested huge importance in the verdict there.
"If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States," McCain told the crowd at a century-old peanut warehouse near Myrtle Beach, where the two campaigned with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.
Romney kept up his criticism of Obama as a jobs killer but didn't get much message reinforcement from the government on Friday: The Labor Department reported that employers added a net 200,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, the fourth straight monthly drop.
Romney said the report contains some good news, but that America still "deserves better." ''Thirty-five consecutive weeks of unemployment above 8 percent is no cause for celebration," he said in a written statement.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, campaigning in New Hampshire, said the uptick had come "despite the president's jobs policy," and he managed to claim credit for Republicans.
Santorum, who has harshly criticized Obama on the economy, said he was "very gratified" that hiring had picked up but suggested the boost was tied to voters' optimism that a Republican would win the White House. "There's a lot of concern still," he added.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for his part, dismissed the job gains as inadequate, saying there are still 1.7 million fewer Americans going to work than when Obama was inaugurated.
Romney's GOP rivals are working overtime to cast as him to too timid and too moderate: They're urging Republicans to do themselves a favor and nominate a more conservative standard-bearer offering a sharper contrast to Obama.
"The only way Republicans lose is if we screw this up and nominate another moderate who has taken multiple positions on every major issue of our time," Santorum told supporters in a fundraising appeal Friday.
Gingrich argued on morning TV news shows that Romney can't win the nomination and said that even if he did, his performance against Obama in the general election campaign debates would simply draw a laugh from the president.
The former House speaker, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," predicted that Romney would win New Hampshire but that one of the former Massachusetts governor's GOP rivals "will eventually emerge as the conservative alternative and will beat Romney."
Romney is heavily favored to win Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, so much so that he can afford to focus on South Carolina, where voters aren't due to cast primary ballots for another two weeks.
McCain told voters there that Romney could effectively clinch the GOP nomination with a South Carolina win on Jan. 21.
"It's going to come down, as it always does, to South Carolina," he said.
The Arizona senator hammered at Gingrich and Santorum for backing government spending on legislators' "earmark" special projects when they were in Congress, telling voters, "My friends, earmarks are the gateway to corruption."
Romney kept his focus on Obama, telling his audience in Conway that the president's proposal to reduce the military and focus more on Asia was "inexcusable, unthinkable and it must be reversed."
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