By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff
HENNIKER, N.H. -- While most of Mitt Romney's competitors campaigned across Iowa, the former Massachusetts governor journeyed today to the unlikely setting of this small town, greeting skiers and snowboarders in the shadow of Pat's Peak as he tried to rebuild what his campaign once hoped was an impregnable firewall in New Hampshire.
Romney, asked whether the appearance signaled a new concern by his campaign that he could lose the first-primary state, said he returned for a two-day swing because he is trying to win in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He contrasted himself with other Republicans whom he said are focusing only on one state. He also launched one of his toughest attacks yet on his fast-gaining competitor here, Senator John McCain of Arizona.
"I don't know, though, that there is any other candidate that is competing in both races to a significant extent," Romney said before a bank of cameras on the second-story deck of the ski lodge. "The other candidates have said ,'Well, I can only compete in one state, but if you want to win the presidency of '08, we've got to win in both states. You can't have a nominee who says, 'I'm writing off Iowa or New Hampshire.' You've got to have a nominee who cares about the election process in both states. I'm fighting to win in both states because I not only want to win the nomination but I want to win the general election."
In fact, many of Romney's opponents are competing in both states to varying degrees. Romney, however, has long been viewed as running an expensive campaign to win both Iowa and New Hampshire in order to do well in later states.
But he is now trailing former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee in polls in Iowa. And Romney's once-seemingly insurmountable lead in New Hampshire has narrowed dramatically at the same time the fortunes have risen for McCain. A Boston Globe poll released Sunday showed Romney leading McCain by only three percentage points, and the Concord Monitor published an editorial calling Romney a "phony" and urged voters here to choose someone else.
Romney, who previously has focused much of his attention on Rudy Giuliani and Huckabee, used the press conference to launch repeated broadsides against McCain. Attacking McCain's initial proposal on illegal immigration, which McCain has since modified, Romney said, "Under his bill that he fought for everybody who came here illegally could stay forever," Romney said of McCain. "Does he still believe that or not believe that?"
Romney also asked whether McCain "admits that he was wrong" about opposing President Bush's tax cuts. "I'm happy to talk about times I was wrong," Romney said. "But I don't recall Senator McCain saying he was wrong to say that all illegal aliens should be able to stay here permanently. Or to say he was wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts. I think he was on both counts."
McCain's campaign responded with a statement highlighting a New Hampshire Union leader editorial that, like the one published in the Concord Monitor, told voters they couldn't trust Romney.
"I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one," the statement said. "It's disappointing that he would launch desperate, flailing and false attacks in an attempt to maintain relevance. As the Union Leader said today, New Hampshire voters just aren't buying his act, and these latest attacks won't help him."
Romney, who has aired ads in Iowa contrasting his positions with those of Huckabee, was asked why he has not run similar advertisements against McCain in New Hampshire. He responded that he had just filmed what he called a positive closing argument for his campaign. But he left open the possibility that additional ads would run.
Romney was peppered with questions about the "anti-endorsement" from the Concord Monitor, which on Sunday urged the state's residents to choose someone other than Romney. Romney responded to the questions by noting that he has received endorsements from many people and publications, including the conservative National Review magazine.
The decision to seek votes here at the ski area here, which seemed to surprise many Christmas week vacationers, produced one of the more unusual sights of the campaign: The sun-drenched desk at the ski lodge was crisscrossed with one group of people carrying skies over their shoulders, while another group -- members of the media -- toted camera tripods. Boris the Bear and Snow the Tiger, the ski's area costumed mascots, wandered amidst the scene.
As the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and the owner of a summer lake home in New Hampshire, Romney is viewed as a quasi-resident of the state. He has aired commercials on television for months and held many town hall meetings. His lead in the state seemed secure until recently, so anything less than a win here would probably be interpreted as a failure to meet expectations. All of the other recent presidential candidates from Massachusetts -- Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John F. Kerry -- have won New Hampshire.
Romney, who ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, did not hit the slopes. But he said that he taught all five of his sons to ski at Pat's Peak, reminding voters of his long-standing ties to New Hampshire.
"It's fun, it brings back memories to be in this spot, especially on this lovely day," Romney said.