MANCHESTER, N.H. — Less than 36 hours separate Mitt Romney from what is supposed to be his campaign coup de grâce: the New Hampshire GOP primary. But with pitfalls presenting themselves in seemingly every direction, the pressure on the front-runner is rapidly intensifying.
The former Massachusetts governor went to bed in New Hampshire on Saturday having ticked off yet another debate with barely a scratch. His fortune didn’t continue on Sunday morning, however, when in another debate his five rivals piled on with feverish intensity.
Newt Gingrich charged him with peddling “pious baloney,” while Rick Santorum proclaimed his core convictions were deficient. Jon Huntsman accused him of elevating partisanship above patriotism.
“It reminded me of that old Pat Benatar song, 'Hit me with your best shot,' ” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser. “Except Mitt Romney absorbed their best shots and, I think, came out of the process looking stronger."
But then came some more bad news.
Polling from Suffolk University, which is tracking the candidates’ standing on a daily basis, showed Romney on a clear trajectory — in the wrong direction.
On the first day of 2012, Romney was 27 points ahead of his nearest rival, capturing 43 percent support from likely voters. By Thursday, he was at 40 percent. On Sunday, he clocked in at 35 percent — just 15 points ahead of his nearest rival, Ron Paul.
To be sure, Romney is still the clear favorite to win the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. But first place was never the sole prize for Romney in New Hampshire — by making the state ground zero for his presidential campaign, Romney and his team made way for elevated expectations of a crushing victory.
That could still be in reach, but not if he can’t thwart his slide in the polls in the next 24 hours.
The media is expecting Romney to win by double digits and capture at least 30 percent of the vote, said David Gergen, a political strategist and White House veteran.
“If he were to come down another five points, that would put him perilously close,” Gergen said on Sunday. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if they started raising [those expectations] up closer to 35.”
Romney’s team maintains they find little credence in the fickle fluctuation of polls in a state where voters prize their ability to sample each candidate before making an informed, last-minute decision.
“In New Hampshire, things always close up at the end,” former Gov. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a Romney supporter, told The Hill. “I’ve been telling the campaign that all along.”
But adding to Romney’s challenge are vulnerabilities being exposed on new fronts — and a few old ones.
Conservatives are still balking over the notion of Romney being at the top of the GOP ticket, but the surge Santorum experienced after almost tying Romney in the Iowa caucuses last week is starting to fade. That’s good news for Romney, but the fact that those leaving Santorum’s camp don’t seem to be joining Romney’s doesn’t bode well for his hopes in South Carolina and other right-leaning states.
And Huntsman’s all-New Hampshire strategy seems to be finally paying off. The former Utah governor is now nipping at the heels of Paul, who is poised to take second place but poses little long-term threat to Romney.
Meanwhile, Romney’s opponents’ attacks on his record as a businessman seem to be finally finding a foothold.
Romney’s detractors in both parties pounced on his remarks Sunday at a campaign stop in Rochester, N.H., where Romney said there were a couple of times in his own life when he worried about getting laid off, but offered no details to back up his claim.
At the same time, a super-PAC supporting Gingrich, who is determined to tear Romney down or go broke trying, unveiled the trailer on Sunday for a 27-minute documentary. The film, titled “When Mitt Romney Came to Town,” purports to document how four businesses and the well-being of their employees were desolated by private equity firm Bain Capital while Romney was at its helm.
“That hurts so bad, to leave my home because of one man that’s got 15 homes,” says an aging woman in the trailer.
But as Romney trekked from one New Hampshire town to another on Sunday, he gave no indication of intentions to react impulsively to emerging hazards or to stray from his steady, tightly disciplined approach to campaigning.
At an evening town-hall meeting with supporter Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.), Romney kept his sights trained squarely on President Obama — even when he was repeatedly disrupted by protesters shouting “Mitt kills jobs.”
“I actually believe that the president and his friends think if we have a problem in this country — and we have plenty — that government is the answer,” he said in Exeter, N.H.
Meanwhile, his supporters are doing their best to temper expectations, framing any first-place finish on Tuesday as an unabated victory.
"I ran here last year and I won by less than 1 percent in my primary,” New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) told The Hill, adding that Granite State primaries tend to come down to the wire.
“I can't predict a number. I think he's going to win.”