Mitt Romney cradles an infant during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H. (Charles Krupa, Associated…)
Reporting from Portsmouth, N.H. — With all eyes on Iowa seven days before the presidential caucuses there, Mitt Romney's quick trip across New Hampshire on Tuesday might have seemed like an unnecessary diversion — especially given his comfortable lead before this state's Jan. 10 primary.
But with voters weighing the Republican candidates' ability to go the distance against President Obama, Romney's campaign was determined to show unmatched organizational might — in this case, the wherewithal to wage a two-state campaign while the others circle Iowa on competing bus tours.
Romney also used his appearance here to poke at Newt Gingrich for an organizational error — failing to qualify for the Virginia ballot. Gingrich's campaign did not turn in the number of valid signatures needed for a spot on the primary ballot, elections officials said last week.
"I think he compared it to Pearl Harbor," Romney said, referring to a Facebook post in which Gingrich campaign director Michael Krull likened the ballot mishap to the December 1941 attack on the United States. "It's more like Lucille Ball and the chocolate factory. So, you know, you've got to get it organized," he said as he signed autographs outside a waterfront chowder house in Portsmouth.
The former House speaker hit back at Romney during an afternoon interview with CNN in which he attributed his recent slide in national polls to the negative ads that have been run by a "super PAC" supporting Romney.
When asked about Romney's reference to the famed "I Love Lucy" episode, Gingrich renewed his challenge to Romney to debate one-on-one in Iowa for 90 minutes with a timekeeper and no moderator.
"I'd love to have him say that to my face," Gingrich said in the interview from Dubuque, Iowa, where he stopped during his bus tour. "I'd like him to have the courage to back up his negative ads. I'd like him to back up the things his staff has been putting out."
Referring to the ads by the super PAC, Restore Our Future, Gingrich added that Romney was "buying millions in attack ads through a phony super PAC run by his former staff, paid for by his millionaire friends. Now I'd like to have him have the courage to be on the same stage and defend his ads and explain his record as a moderate in Massachusetts," he said.
He went on to criticize Romney's record as governor on job creation, taxes and abortion. "All I'd say, Mitt, is, if you want to run a negative campaign, you want to attack people, at least be man enough to own it," Gingrich said. "That's your staff and that's your organization; those are your millionaire friends paying for it…. You are a moderate Massachusetts Republican who in fact is very timid about job creation. Let's get it on."
With the exception of his Lucille Ball comparison, Romney focused Tuesday on Obama during his quick stops in Londonderry and Portsmouth before flying to Iowa.
Romney's campaign packed more than 100 people into Londonderry's Coach Stop restaurant and then shuffled the candidate through the tiny cafe and kitchen of Geno's Chowder & Sandwich Shop, a Republican campaign landmark where the owner famously flips over the framed pictures of politicians when their policies displease her. (Former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg gave her a frame with his picture on both sides.)
A new Boston Globe poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Romney leading the Republican field with 39% among voters likely to cast ballots in the first primary on the election calendar. Gingrich, who led in some recent national polls before slipping back into a dead heat with Romney, was tied with Texas congressman Ron Paul for second place in the state with 17% in the survey released on Christmas Day.
Though Romney is counting on New Hampshire as his firewall if one of his rivals pulls out a victory in the Iowa caucuses, he insisted Tuesday that there was no must-win state for his campaign.
"You'd like to win every state, but that's not going to happen," he told reporters outside the Coach Stop. "I'm hoping to do well enough to get the 1,150 delegates," he added, referring to the number needed to clinch the Republican nomination.