HENNIKER, N.H. (MCT) New Hampshire was supposed to be the easy state.
As he works to reclaim his dominance in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is struggling to stop the slippage in his poll numbers here, a state where he is well-known, owns a vacation home and governed next door for four years.
Making matters worse, Romney is suddenly facing unusually personal criticism from two of the state's leading newspapers, The New Hampshire Union Leader and The Concord Monitor, which in recent days have expressed skepticism about his authenticity and truthfulness.
The Monitor, a liberal newspaper whose endorsement Romney had sought, described him as "a disquieting figure who sure looks like the next president and most surely must be stopped."
The Union Leader, which has endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, Romney's biggest challenger in the state, said Wednesday, "The more Mitt Romney speaks, the less believable he becomes."
Romney aides dismissed the criticism, citing a slew of conservative endorsements, including that of New Hampshire's senior senator, Republican Judd Gregg. But the climate here seems to be changing, prompting Romney to go on the offense against McCain in New Hampshire just as he is being forced to take on former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa.
"I'm happy to talk about the times when I've been wrong, but I don't recall Sen. McCain saying he was wrong to say all illegal aliens can stay here permanently or that he was wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts," Romney said.
In a quick reply, McCain accused Romney of desperate tactics designed for desperate times.
"I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one," McCain said in a statement. "It's disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks in an attempt to maintain relevance."
Romney's slides in Iowa and New Hampshire are particularly perilous for a candidate whose strategy has been built around wins in those two states. Romney has spent millions of dollars and untold campaign hours attempting to guarantee victories in the first two states to have a say in deciding the Republican nominee for 2008.
A poll in Sunday's Boston Globe poll put Romney and McCain in a statistical tie, after months in which Romney easily led the Republican pack. Those gains have McCain officials bracing themselves for what's to come from Romney.
"If he's not starting a negative ad today, it will be tomorrow or Friday. I'm not a betting man, but I would put money on it," said Michael Dennehy, McCain's political director. "He can't afford to lose New Hampshire, so he'll use whatever means necessary."
Donna Sytek, the former speaker of the state House and Romney's New Hampshire co-chair, said no one advising Romney is surprised by the criticism, nor are they surprised that the race is close.
"That's because of being a front-runner. Everybody takes shots at you," Sytek said of the one-two punch from the newspapers just before and after Christmas. "I think early on we thought it would be (Rudy) Giuliani nipping at our heels."
But the tightness of the contest here means Romney will be working to separate himself from the other candidates, she acknowledged.
"He's much more likely to say, 'Unlike others who believe such and so about immigration ...' to remind people that there is a difference among the top three," said Sytek, meaning Romney, McCain and Huckabee.
That's exactly what Romney did Wednesday at Pat's Peak, a ski spot packed with children for the Christmas holiday, where the former Massachusetts governor came to shake hands and defend his criticism of other candidates.
"As long as you describe the other person's positions and record accurately, I think that's an entirely legitimate and appropriate part of a political campaign," Romney told reporters at the base of the mountain.
In that vein, Romney's press office issued a statement citing what it called "A Straight Talk Detour" a derisive reference to McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus and highlighting a McCain quote that "amnesty has to be an important part" of comprehensive immigration reform.
At the same time, Romney tried to deter reporters from considering statements he had made in the past.
"I know that there are some particularly in opposing campaigns who will try to look at old quotes, and perhaps take them out of context and perhaps not, and go back 14 years or 15 years, and say, 'You said this here, you said that there,"' said Romney. "But ... if you want to know what I'd do as president, you can see what I did as governor."
Romney's campaign produced two television ads Wednesday in New Hampshire. He said both were positive, containing his closing argument to voters, and that he has not yet decided whether to air any "contrast" or negative ads.