Tuesday cannot come soon enough for Mitt Romney.
Support for the former Massachusetts governor and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination has slipped 8 percentage points in the past five days in New Hampshire, whose first-in-the-nation primary is only two days away.
The Suffolk University daily tracking poll out Sunday showed Mr. Romney’s support falling to 35 per cent among likely primary voters from 43 per cent last Tuesday. His advance over his closest rival has been cut from 25 percentage points to 15 points.
Mr. Romney has faced sky-high expectations in the New Hampshire primary, so a narrower margin of victory could perpetuate doubts about his ability to rally the party base in a general election against President Barack Obama.
Indeed, the question of Mr. Romney’s electability in a national election was a central theme in Sunday’s Meet the Press GOP debate, the second such nationally televised encounter in less than 12 hours.
One by one, Mr. Romney’s rivals attacked his suitability for the nomination.
“What Republicans have to ask is, who's most likely in the long run to survive against the kind of billion-dollar campaign the Obama team is going to run?” former House of Representatives speaker Newt Gingrich said.
“A bold Reagan conservative with a very strong economic plan is a lot more likely to succeed in that campaign than a relatively timid Massachusetts moderate who even The Wall Street Journal said had an economic plan so timid it resembled Obama.”
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who has faced questions about his own electability after losing a 2006 re-election bid, went after Mr. Romney for bowing out as Massachusetts governor rather than seeking a second term in 2006.
“You didn't want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record,” Mr. Santorum charged. “If it was that great, why did you bail out?”
Mr. Santorum also brought up Mr. Romney’s 1994 Senate election loss against Ted Kennedy, suggesting it was an even bigger liability than his own electoral defeat in Pennsylvania by 18 percentage points.
“Governor Romney lost by almost 20 points. Why? Because at the end of that campaign he wouldn't stand up for conservative principles…He said he was going to be to the left, just like Kennedy on gay rights and abortion,” Mr. Santorum continued. “We want someone [who]when the time gets tough – and it will in this election – is going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles.”
Mr. Romney, who underscored his business experience compared to the lack of it among the “career politicians” on stage with him, was unfazed by the barbs.
“Run again? That would be about me,” he said. “I was trying to help get the state in the best shape as I possibly could. [I]left the world of politics, went back into business.
“I long for a day where instead of having people to go to Washington for 20 and 30 years … and then when they lose office they stay there and make money as lobbyists,” Mr. Romney said in a not-so-veiled criticism of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Santorum. “I think it stinks.”
Mr. Gingrich, whose remarks have grown more acid as his poll numbers slide, responded: “Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is, you ran in '94 and lost. That's why you weren't serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum.”
Next to Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich has the most to prove in Tuesday’s primary. But the Suffolk poll showed him continuing to lose traction, despite his adoption of a no-holds-barred campaign style in the Granite State. He has slipped to fourth place with the support of only 9 per cent of likely New Hampshire primary voters.
Libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul is in second place with 20 per cent support, followed by ex-Utah governor and former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, with 11 per cent. Mr. Santorum is in fifth at 8 per cent.
The poll has a margin of error of 4.4 per cent.