NASHUA, N.H. -- Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stumbled down the homestretch of the New Hampshire primary on Monday, declaring, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me" as his rivals intensified already fierce criticism.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has staked his candidacy on a strong showing in today's primary and has shown signs of gaining ground in recent polls.
Adding insult to any injury, Texas Gov. Rick Perry posted a ringtone to his campaign website that consisted of Romney saying, "I like being able to fire people" over and over.
Romney is the odds-on favorite in New Hampshire, and Huntsman as well as other Republicans who are contesting the state have generally been content to vie for second place in hopes of emerging as his main rival in the South Carolina primary on Jan. 21.
"Second place would be a dream come true," said former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, racing through a full New Hampshire campaign day of more than 14 hours.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, won in Iowa by eight votes. A victory in New Hampshire would make him the first Republican in a contested presidential nomination battle to capture the first two races of the campaign since Iowa began leading off for the GOP in 1976.
The battle has grown increasingly rancorous in recent days -- both in New Hampshire and next-up South Carolina -- with Santorum, Perry and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich escalating their attacks on Romney's claim that a background in business uniquely qualifies him to help create U.S. jobs.
At the same time, an organization that backs Gingrich has spread the word that it intends to spend $3.4 million on TV ads in South Carolina expected to attack Romney with gusto.
On Monday morning, addressing the Nashua Chamber of Commerce, Romney said he wants individuals to be able to choose among different health insurance policies. "That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don't like what they do, you can fire them," he said. "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I'm going to go get somebody else to provide that service to me," he added.