Santorum: Romney's 'fire people' comment not 'a very good message'

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“It was certainly an inarticulate way of phrasing what he wanted to phrase, but it’s a little bit of a 'gotcha,' " Santorum said.

"I am not going to make a big issue of that; I understand what he meant; we all say things a little left-handedly," he added. "But obviously, the way you say things left-handedly can provide some insights on how you actually see things, and we’ll let the American public figure that out.”

Santorum has sought to emphasize his blue-collar roots as a contrast to Romney in New Hampshire, where his evangelical message — popular in Iowa — does less to move the needle. Santorum argued that voters would have an easier time relating to him in a general election, saying that he could better connect to Rust Belt workers.

“Look, Gov. Romney comes from a different place than I do,” Santorum told ABC. “Obviously you don’t pick the family you are born into; his family is of great service to our country, and have done a lot of good things. But the life experiences are different, and where we come from is different, and I think that a dad of seven kids, who is a son of an immigrant, who grew up in a steel town, and went to Catholic schools and had the nuns beat my knuckles bare — it is just a different experience, that people in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Indiana, they can relate to a little better than somebody else.”

Santorum also told the network that it would be "crazy" to assume that Romney was the inevitable nominee if he swept the first three primaries, but that his goal was just to beat Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich in New Hampshire.

Romney's other rivals have been even tougher on the "fire people" remarks. Rick Perry released a ringtone that supporters can download to their cellphones that loops the comments and mocks Romney's suggestion that he sympathized with workers who feared layoffs. Newt Gingrich and Jon Huntsman had similar criticism for the former governor.

“Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs,” said Huntsman while campaigning in New Hampshire.