MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Mitt Romney's rivals are all but conceding defeat in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, looking past a weekend debate doubleheader here and focusing on South Carolina as their best chance to slow his march to the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney campaigned in both states on Friday, prominent party leaders by his side, President Barack Obama on his mind.
Giving no ground when the government reported the creation of 200,000 new jobs in December, Romney said America deserves better than the economic results Obama has delivered.
"Thirty-five consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent is no cause for celebration," he said in a written statement.
Republican rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were no more inclined to applaud Obama for the drop in unemployment to its lowest level in nearly three years. But they had other worries, including a new survey that suggested Romney's narrow victory this week in Iowa's caucuses has sent his support soaring in South Carolina.
The three men share a debate stage tonight and again Sunday morning with the other three surviving contenders, Ron Paul, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.
Ordinarily, the week between lead-off Iowa and New Hampshire is one of the most intense of the entire presidential campaign.
That hasn't been as true this year in New Hampshire, given Romney's four years as governor of next-door Massachusetts, his numerous campaign trips here and the reaffirming victory in Iowa.
With only three days remaining until the first-in-the-nation primary, television advertising was relatively modest, with Paul, Romney and a committee supporting Huntsman the only entities spending significant sums.
In a school auditorium in Dublin on Friday, Santorum faced tough questions about his positions on contraception, gays and lesbians in the military and earmarks in the federal budget.
"I know some people have been hammering away at me as an irresponsible spender," he said. "The idea that because someone earmarked, that means they're an irresponsible spender is just absurd."
He blamed Sen. John McCain, a Romney supporter, for stirring up controversy over earmarks, the designation of federal spending for specific uses or projects. And he said McCain "ran to the hills" when it came to the issue of making changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
McCain paid him no mind.
"Earmarks are the gateway to corruption," he said in Conway, S.C., as he and Gov. Nikki Haley campaigned with Romney. "Rick Santorum sponsored earmark after earmark."
McCain told the crowd that South Carolina Republicans have the ability to settle the nomination race. "If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States," he said.
Obama and the Democrats will test that proposition strenuously.