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Romney rivals seek to close gap


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Romney rivals seek to close gap

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Front-runner Mitt Romney was challenged by opponents Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich on Sunday

The six men left in the Republican presidential race are making final pitches to New Hampshire voters ahead of the state's primary on Tuesday.

Mitt Romney remains the strong front-runner, with polls on Monday showing Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman jockeying for position behind him.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are vying for conservative votes, with one eye on the next race in South Carolina.

The eventual nominee will challenge President Barack Obama in November.

Primaries and caucuses will take place in every US state over the next few months before the Republican nominee is crowned at the party convention in August.

But votes in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida this month could well prove decisive in shaping the eventual outcome of the race.

'Pious baloney'

The pace of campaigning picked up on Sunday and will continue throughout Monday.

The candidates took part in two televised debates within 12 hours, on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Mark Mardell BBC North America editor

Given that fear and loathing in New Hampshire remains unwritten, a Romney win here is pretty much a forgone conclusion. It will mean more voters will jump on his bandwagon.

A Romney nomination seems to many a grim inevitability, like death and taxes.

The former Massachusetts governor's economic programme was called "timid" and his conservative credentials were also questioned.

Mr Gingrich - who endured a barrage of negative advertising before the Iowa caucuses from a fund-raising committee backing Mr Romney - said his rival was spouting "pious baloney".

A pro-Gingrich political action committee - known as a Super PAC - has now unveiled a short film attacking Mr Romney over his business career.

Focussing on his record at Bain Capital, the video portrays Mr Romney as a greedy "corporate raider" who destroyed the lives of American families.

The pro-Gingrich group, Winning Our Future, is poised to spend $3.4m (£2m) on TV advertising in South Carolina after the New Hampshire vote, the New York Times reported on Monday.

'Timid moderate'

Sunday's debate was was co-hosted by NBC's Meet the Press , the New Hampshire Union Leader and Facebook - with some questions being sent over the social networking site.

Mr Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, accused Mr Romney of trying to mislead voters by suggesting he was not a career politician.

Mitt Romney: Ex-Massachusetts governor and Mormon; presumed front-runner though doubts remain for some over his conservative credentials

Rick Perry: Texas governor; once seen as a conservative alternative to Mr Romney, his campaign has been damaged by a series of gaffes

Ron Paul: Texas congressman and, at 76, oldest in race. Libertarian-minded, with a band of devoted followers

Rick Santorum: Ex-Pennsylvania senator and social conservative. Nearly written off, but saw a surge that helped him come second in Iowa

Newt Gingrich: Ex-House of Representatives' speaker; Briefly led the field, but support collapsed amid a fusillade of attacks ads

Jon Huntsman: Ex-Utah governor and Mormon. Served as President Obama's ambassador to China.

"Just level with the American people," Mr Gingrich urged him, reprising a previous attack that Mr Romney would have spent the last 17 years in politics if he had won a 1994 bid for a Senate seat.

Mr Romney replied: "Politics is not my career. My life's passion has been my family, my faith, my country."

Mr Gingrich described Mr Romney as a "relatively timid Massachusetts moderate," adding: "I think he'll have a very hard time getting elected."

But Mr Romney said he was proud of his record, adding: "I think the one thing you can't fool the people of New Hampshire about is the record of a governor next door" in Massachusetts.

Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who lost the Iowa caucus by just eight votes, questioned why Mr Romney had not sought a second term as governor, asking him: "Why did you bail out?."

Mr Romney adopted the same tactic as during Saturday's debate, largely refraining from making digs at his opponents - though he pointed to Jon Huntsman's period as ambassador to China under Mr Obama.

Mr Huntsman replied on Sunday: "I was criticised last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first. He criticised me while he was out raising money. I want to be very clear. I will always put my country first."

Mr Romney's three main rivals - Mr Santorum, Mr Gingrich and Texas congressman Ron Paul - attacked each other again.

Mr Santorum said Mr Paul had "never really passed anything of any importance".

"One of the reasons people like Congressman Paul is his economic plan. He's never been able to accomplish any of that, has no track record of being able to work together. He's been out there on the margins and has really been unsuccessful in working together with anybody to do anything."

And when asked about President Obama's patriotic credentials, Rick Perry said: "We have a president that's a socialist. I don't think our founding fathers wanted to make our country as socialist country."

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