As recently as last week, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney seemed to be holding a secure lead in New Hampshire, even as he was losing ground to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in Iowa.
But a Boston Globe survey released Sunday showed that the former Massachusetts governor’s numbers were slipping in the Northeast as well: Romney, the poll said, now holds a 3 percentage point lead over Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, down from 15 points in November.
The threat to Romney’s early state strategy -- which aimed for a one-two win in Iowa on Jan. 3 and in New Hampshire on Jan. 8 -- appears serious enough that Romney has started criticizing McCain by name at a time when most campaigns are trying to stay positive.
At a Peterborough town hall Sunday, Romney tried to differentiate himself by telling voters that he wanted to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent.
“Right now, Sen. McCain and I are both battling for your support and your vote. He’s a good man, but we have differing views on this,” Romney said. “He voted against the Bush tax cuts, he voted against eliminating the [inheritance] tax forever. . . . I believe in pushing taxes down.”
In 2001 and 2003, McCain did reject the Bush tax cuts as too tilted toward wealthy Americans but now says he would make them permanent.
McCain’s senior advisor, Mark Salter, fired back that Romney’s remarks stemmed from his angst over McCain’s gains.
“Welcome to Mitt Romney’s bizzaro world, where everyone is guilty of his sins,” Salter said in a statement. ". . . Give it a rest. It’s Christmas.”
At an “Ask Mitt Anything” forum Friday night in Rochester, the candidate was questioned about whether his position on the Bush tax cuts had shifted. In 2003, the Boston Globe reported that he had told Massachusetts lawmakers he would neither support or oppose the Bush tax cuts.
Romney told the audience that as governor, he did not weigh in “on federal issues.”
“Sen. McCain is different. He voted against tax cuts twice. I was the governor of a state, not a senator,” Romney said.
McCain, who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary, was heavily favored here going into the 2008 presidential contest. But many conservatives were angered by his moderate position on immigration, and some liberal supporters were troubled by his close association with the Bush administration’s Iraq war strategy.
Romney’s well-organized campaign took advantage early on, going on the air with his first television ads in February.
But McCain’s campaign has gained momentum of late with several newspaper endorsements, including the conservative Union Leader newspaper in Manchester, the Portsmouth Herald on the state’s coast, and the Salmon Press, which publishes 11 smaller newspapers throughout the state. He also won the backing of Romney’s hometown newspaper, the Boston Globe, and the Des Moines Register in Iowa.
Romney took an unusual hit Sunday in New Hampshire from the Concord Monitor newspaper, which ran an anti-endorsement editorial calling Romney a “phony” who “most surely must be stopped.”
“If you followed only his tenure as governor of Massachusetts, you might imagine Romney as a pragmatic moderate with liberal positions on numerous social issues and an ability to work well with Democrats,” the Monitor’s editorial said. “If you followed only his campaign for president, you’d swear he was a red-meat conservative, pandering to the religious right, whatever the cost. Pay attention to both, and you’re left to wonder if there’s anything at all at his core.”
The Romney campaign dismissed the editorial board as “a liberal one on many issues” that disagreed with a number of Romney’s conservative views.
On Sunday, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said that the “tightening at the top” was natural as election day neared and that the campaign always had predicted New Hampshire and Iowa would be “competitive.”
A number of voters who turned out Sunday to see Romney said they were still undecided. Among them was Stephen Gagnon, 49, an auto body worker who decided to stop by Foodee’s pizza parlor in Milford to shake Romney’s hand.
Gagnon said he was deciding between Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who “performed well under . . . the ultimate pressure” of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But, he said, Romney may do a better job turning around the economy.
“He gets stuff done,” Gagnon said. “He turned [Massachusetts] around. The state was broke. The state is traditionally known for having problems. . . . [He] cleaned it up.”
After watching Romney in Peterborough, optometrist Marilynn Ezell said she was drifting back to McCain, whom she supported in 2000. She had crossed him off her list because “he went a little too far” on the immigration issue. “I’ve been listening to him again, because I hope maybe he’s listened to the American public and understood that we don’t want amnesty” for illegal immigrants, Ezell said.
“I couldn’t respect anybody more than McCain.”
Times staff writer Scott Kraft in Rochester, N.H., contributed to this report.