MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Today couldn't have come fast enough for Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor's strategy to lie low while his opponents imploded one by one was put to the test when they collectively -- if reluctantly -- launched a final assault on him in the days leading to New Hampshire's primary.
Romney has retained his lead, but he failed the test -- a failure that may prove more significant in the general election than it will today. Under pressure from right and left, Romney delivered a series of gaffes and fibs in the past few days that may appear trivial on the surface, but reinforce the harshest critiques of him as a heartless businessman and soulless politician.
Defining moments often only become clear in hindsight. When John Kerry said that he had been for $87 billion in war funding before he was against it, the quote was largely ripped from its context, but nevertheless reinforced an image of a flip-flopping politician.
Romney knows the knock against him, but played into it Monday anyway. In response to a question about health care following a routine Chamber of Commerce speech, Romney tried to illuminate the virtues of a free market.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," he said, his expression altering perceptibly as he heard the words tumble out. "You know, if someone doesn’t give me a good service, then I want to say, 'I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'"
Romney has been labeled by The Daily Show's Jon Stewart as "the guy who looks like everyone who ever fired your dad."
The gaffe came after Romney fibbed about his political ambitions while governor, lied about having seen an attack ad cut by his Super PAC, bizarrely asserted that he'd been worried in the past about getting laid off, and approvingly related advice from his father, that nobody who still has to pay a mortgage should run for political office.
The missteps may cost him some votes in New Hampshire, but probably not enough to halt his progress toward the nomination. Still, the blunders leave Romney supporters wondering if his main campaign argument -- his electability -- may itself be hollow. "The more this goes on, the more I think he's not going to beat Obama. And I can't believe that's the case," one well known New Hampshire Republican told HuffPost.
As with any gaffe, there is usually a context that can make it explicable. But when you're explaining, you're losing, and Romney was forced to spend part of the day before the primary on defense.
Both Democrats and Republicans piled on, with the former gleefully clipping the tape and blasting it out:
Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich all piled on, raising hackles from conservative bloggers and institutions that backed up Romney's charge that they were putting "free enterprise on trial."
Perry turned Romney's line into a ringtone.
"Romney reminded voters why he's one of the weakest frontrunners in presidential history. 'I like being able to fire people,' doesn't exactly scream electability," Huntsman said. "History shows that nominating a gaffe-prone, out-of-touch, flip-flopping, inauthentic candidate is a losing strategy. Yet, John Kerry's legacy lives on with Mitt Romney."
Romney, forced on the defensive, called a press conference. "Things can always be taken out of context and I understand that that's what the Obama people will do," Romney told a tense gathering of reporters. He reiterated that when he said he liked "being able to fire people" he was referencing the need to introduce choice into health care for consumers. "We should be able to choose the insurance company of our choice. We should not have to have one foisted upon us by the president and Obamacare," he said.
But the comments were out there. Firing people might be necessary sometime. But who enjoys it, voters were left to wonder.
When asked about Gingrich's attacks, Romney's response dripped with scorn.
"Gee, I thought he apologized for going after my record at Bain," Romney said. "Wasn't that just a couple of weeks ago? So he apologized for that and now he's decided to make that a centerpiece.
"Well, I'm not going to worry about that. As we'll find out, free enterprise will be on trial," Romney said. "I thought it was going to come from the president and from the Democrats -- the left -- but instead it's coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum -- who calls himself a "blue collar" candidate, but says he doesn't recognize class -- played the nice guy most of the day, probably happy not to have his obsession with sexuality making headlines again. Santorum repeatedly refused to join his colleagues in bashing Romney.
"My feeling is that if Gov. Romney did some things that were out of line for the kind of business he was in, that's one thing," Santorum said. "But look, if the governor's involved in the private sector in trying to buy companies, I'm sure that most of the companies he tried to buy he wanted to make profitable and in some cases it didn't work. So I don't have the particular facts and I'm not going to be taking shots at him for that. ... I think he's got a lot more about his record as governor to talk about than his record at Bain Capital," he added.
Things are known to move quickly in New Hampshire in the days just before the vote, and polls showed nearly a third of voters still not firmly decided. And that's in a state Romney owns a lakeside home -- in tony Wolfeboro -- and has been a known entity for years.
"This is like his home state. He has 100 percent name ID," Huntsman's Jon Weaver said. "The Washington establishment is rallying behind him. He's probably going to win here with close to a majority of the vote. If he doesn't get that, I think it's going to be a defeat."
Santorum's Bill Cahill set the expectations the same way. "I won't say anything negative other than the fact that Mitt Romney has been sort of flat-lining at 40 percent for five years. He hasn't gone up, he hasn't gone down. Everybody knows Mitt Romney. He's from a neighboring state. He has 100 percent name ID," Cahill said. "There's no mystery about the man. The fact is, the poll numbers right now -- at least from what we've been able to see -- was that 6 out of 10 voters in the state of New Hampshire don't support Mitt Romney."
It's fitting, then, that a day Romney spent battling charges of elitism ended with him debating Occupy movement protesters.
Jon Ward, Sam Stein and Howard Fineman contributed reporting