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Evan Vucci, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is surrounded by media outside Webster School in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, where primary voting was taking place.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Tuesday defended his "I like to fire people" remark against criticism from GOP rivals as he and his family faced a crush of reporters, supporters and detractors on New Hampshire's primary day.

"I was talking about as you know insurance companies," Romney said as he fought through the crowd with his wife, Ann, and son Craig. "We all like to get rid of our insurance companies."

Romney's campaign was also defending the White House hopeful from his GOP foes' continued attacks on his business record at venture capital investment company Bain Capital.

Taken together, the assault has left Romney's team tense going into a night they hoped would be a celebration of an overwhelming victory that would contribute to the perception that the former Massachusetts governor would inevitably become the Republican nominee.

Instead, when Romney reached out to hold a supporter's baby daughter, the shouts were angry. "Are you going to fire the baby?" someone yelled over the din.

Others shouted, "We want Mitt!"

Romney's staffers tried to guide him through the crush of reporters shouting questions at him and had to shove people out of the way to open the door of Romney's SUV. His daughter-in-law was left behind in the crowd, and Romney moved a meeting with volunteers to a different, unannounced location.

He had no other public events planned until Tuesday evening.

Romney has led in opinion polls here for months — in recent days by 20 percentage points or more. He's been pushing for an overwhelming victory as he looks to South Carolina, a state where the conservative GOP base was uncomfortable with him in 2008, and strives to wrap up the nomination fight as quickly as possible.

His campaign aides had been most concerned about complacency among supporters, and they launched an intensive get-out-the-vote effort over the weekend, backed by hundreds of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of phone calls.

Romney and his rivals are in many ways already looking to the first-in-the-South contest a little more than a week from now. Gingrich allies are spending millions to run ads attacking Romney's time heading Bain Capital.

And rival Rick Perry, in South Carolina on Tuesday, said companies like Bain are "vultures" that "swoop in and eat the carcass" of struggling companies.