MANCHESTER, N.H. - Mitt Romney's declaration that "I like being able to fire people" set off a tempest on the eve of the New Hampshire Republican primary as his rivals seized a chance to rough up his presidential prospects beyond the race he's expected to win Tuesday.
Never mind that Romney was talking about American consumers being able to "fire" their health insurance companies, not about a boss laying off workers. His off-the-cuff comments Monday played into growing questions about whether his drive for profits at a private equity firm came at the expense of workers.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people, I enjoy creating jobs," GOP rival Jon Huntsman told reporters at a Concord, N.H., rally. "It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America, and that's a dangerous place for someone to be."
Newt Gingrich said Romney's firm "apparently looted" the companies it took over, and he promised a clamorous challenge ahead, no matter what happens in New Hampshire.
"I spent three weeks with Gov. Romney saying a variety of foolish things like, you need broad shoulders, and, you need to stand the heat," Gingrich said. "I mean, fine, OK, I've got broad shoulders, I can stand the heat. Now, we'll see if he has broad shoulders and he can stand the heat."
The former Massachusetts governor, who had practically adopted New Hampshire as his home, has held a comfortable lead in pre-primary polls, leaving his opponents essentially vying for second place while hoping New Hampshire's capacity to spring a surprise might yet break their way.
Romney tried to shrug off the fallout from his remarks - and the piling on.
"Free enterprise will be on trial," he told reporters. "I thought it was going to come from the president, from the Democrats, from the left, but instead it's coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others and that's just part of the process. I'm not worried about that.
"I've got broad shoulders," he said once again, "and I'm happy to describe my experience in the private economy."
Rivals quickened their drumbeat of criticism against him in the fast-paced finale of the New Hampshire campaign. Much of it is centered on his tenure at Bain Capital when it took over a host of companies, growing some and closing others.
Romney has never substantiated his claim that he helped create more than 100,000 jobs at Bain, an assertion key to his economically centered candidacy. That has left him vulnerable to charges by Democrats, and increasingly his GOP opponents, that he was merely a corporate takeover artist who put profits ahead of workers.
Declaring "I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," Gingrich promised a tougher tone in the race, which he had previewed in weekend debates. "Mitt Romney cannot campaign with a straight face as a conservative," said the former House speaker, soon to be aided by an ad campaign in South Carolina assailing Romney and his Bain record.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, rocked by a poor showing in the Iowa caucuses, echoed Gingrich's line of attack from South Carolina, having passed up the New Hampshire race.
"I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips - whether he'd have enough of them to hand out," Perry told several dozen breakfast patrons in Anderson, S.C. That was a slap at Romney's recent comment that he worried about getting a pink slip during his executive career.
Perry cited South Carolina companies that downsized under Bain's control, and said it would be an "insult" for Romney to come to the state and ask for voters' support in easing economic pain.
"He caused it," Perry said, describing himself as best positioned to untangle the "unholy alliance between Washington and Wall Street."
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a prominent Romney supporter, shot back that Gingrich and Perry are talking not just like Democrats, but socialists.
"Sometimes the socialists are Republicans," Sununu said at Romney's Manchester, N.H., headquarters, where the candidate stopped to make a few calls to voters. "I would not be using comments that sound like they could have been written in the White House."
Despite the swirling questions about workers who lost their jobs at Bain-owned companies, Romney chose to liken consumers in the health care market to employers who get to lay people off. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," he said, looking weary, at a Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast.
"If someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, `I'm going to get somebody else to provide that service to me."'
Alone among the half dozen contenders, Perry skipped New Hampshire. But several others are looking to South Carolina, too, to help level the playing field, conceding Romney's advantage in his neighborhood.
One of them was Rick Santorum, who came within eight votes of upsetting Romney in Iowa only to find New Hampshire a tough sell.
"Second place would be a dream come true," Santorum told reporters, who outnumbered supporters on a chilly soccer field in Nashua. He is hoping his social conservative credentials will serve him better in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21.
The candidates were all but tripping over each other Monday, concentrating their day in the southern half of New Hampshire, known for holding town-hall meetings in actual town halls.
Ron Paul visited a Manchester diner in the morning, planning to shake hands with patrons, but swiftly departed because of a crush of news camera crews.
The Texas congressman told Fox News his campaign did not plan to contest Florida, which holds its primary Jan. 31, largely for financial reasons. But he said the plan could change if he did well in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"We're still taking one week at a time, one primary at a time."
Huntsman, who needs a strong New Hampshire performance to stay viable in the race, had perhaps the most frantic pace Monday, with seven stops on his itinerary from Lebanon near the Vermont line to the seacoast.
The former Utah governor visited a Lebanon truck stop and took the phone from an employee behind the counter who was speaking with a milk delivery driver. He said he's looking for votes wherever he can find them. "I'm the underdog," he said, a label that applies - at least in New Hampshire - to anyone but Romney.
Huntsman was greeted outside a Dover bakery by former state party chairman Fergus Cullen, who said he decided Sunday night to back him. The harsh tone of the GOP race weighed on Cullen.
"I like that he's a positive person, he's not angry," he said of Huntsman. "The party can't give in to its anger."