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For Romney, it’s not over until the fat lady sings

Anne Penketh

Mitt Romney had to win big last night in the New Hampshire primary, to solidify his status as the putative frontrunner in the Republican presidential race.

  He did, coming in with 40 percent of the vote, after scraping through in the Iowa caucuses with only eight votes more than his nearest rival. The result may have silenced the “anyone but Romney” critics in the Republican party for now, but watching the former Massachusetts governor’s victory speech last night it struck me that he remains vulnerable.

He is vulnerable on the very territory that he again defined as the battleground in the fight with President Obama: jobs and the free market. And it is his own fault.

Romney’s remarks at a meeting in Nashua were worse than a gaffe. It was not a slip of the tongue when he said “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” It was a deliberate choice of words and he enjoyed saying it. He clearly did not realize that he had handed a gift not only to his five Republican rivals but also to the Obama campaign. Although taken out of context (he was referring to the freedom to switch health insurance) this is a talking point that will run and run.

Since Monday, there has been increased scrutiny in the media and in the Republican party on Romney’s corporate credentials. Doubts have been cast on his claim that he created 100,000 jobs in the private sector. His record at Bain Capital is being examined. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who was the first to accuse Romney of building his career by sacrificing his employees, is now heading to South Carolina with a 27-minute attack documentary on the “corporate raider”.

Romney is probably right when he said last night that the criticism from both the Obama camp and the unnamed “desperate Republicans” aligned with the president smacks of “resentment of success”. This is a new phenomenon, but it has been exploited by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which identifies Romney as a member of the 1 percent.

So Romney should not rest easily on his New Hampshire laurels. None of his five rivals abandoned their campaign last night. It’s on to South Carolina, where he faces a different electorate from his New England home turf in the January 21st primary. Romney admitted this morning on CBS that he expected “all guns blazing in my direction” in South Carolina where he came fourth in 2008. The frontrunner may have grounds to fear the return of “anyone but Romney” whispers from stage left.

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