(Adds quotes, poll result)
* Can he make it two in a row?
* Fierce battle for second place, or shock upset
* Voting starts in first primary of 2012
By Steve Holland and Jason McLure
MANCHESTER, N.H., Jan 10 (Reuters) - Mitt Romney was
poised to take a big step toward the Republican U.S.
presidential nomination on Tuesday by capturing New Hampshire,
hoping to ride out last-minute attacks labeling him a corporate
raider who enjoyed firing workers.
The former governor of neighboring Massachusetts carried a
sizeable lead in polls into voting day, a sufficient cushion
that should force rivals Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich
and Rick Santorum into a battle for second place.
Romney, 63, would be the first Republican who is not an
incumbent president to win the first two early voting states,
after his slim eight-vote victory over former Pennsylvania
Senator Santorum a week ago in the Iowa caucuses.
A more resounding win would provide momentum going into
South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31. He leads in
polls of both states and victories there could all but sew up
his nomination to face Democratic President Barack Obama in the
Nov. 6 general election.
A Suffolk University/7 News tracking poll on Tuesday showed
Romney with 37 percent support among New Hampshire voters,
versus 18 percent for Paul, 16 percent for Huntsman, 11 percent
for Santorum, 9 percent for Gingrich and 1 percent for Texas
Governor Rick Perry.
Seven percent of voters were undecided in the telephone
survey on Sunday and Monday, which had an error margin of 4.4
The same poll on Monday had Romney at 33 percent, Paul at 20
percent, Huntsman with 13 percent, Gingrich at 11, Santorum 10
and undecided at 12 percent.
"You're going to make a big statement tomorrow, let's take
it to the next step, give me the boost I need, I hope," said
Romney in Bedford on Monday night at his final rally of the day.
It was unclear how much damage had been done by a mess of
his own making in which Romney declared "I like being able to
fire people who provide services to me," in discussing the need
for greater competition between health insurance companies.
Romney's opponents seized on the comment as evidence that
the former venture capitalist is an out-of-touch politician and
coupled it with attacks over his record at Bain Capital, a firm
that bought companies and restructured them.
"Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating
jobs," Huntsman said.
In a sharp departure for a party known as friendly to
business, Republicans seeking to slow Romney sounded more like
populists as they bashed his work as a venture capitalist.
Former House Speaker Gingrich, brooding over negative
attacks from Romney and his backers that knocked him out of the
front-runner position, has launched the toughest onslaught.
"Mitt Romney was not a capitalist during his reign at
Bain. He was a predatory corporate raider," a video produced by
a pro-Gingrich group said.
New Hampshire voting stations close at 7 p.m. EST (midnight
GMT). About 250,000 people are expected to vote in the
Republican primary while 75,000 are likely to vote to endorse
In Dixville Notch, the tiny village that traditionally votes
at midnight to kick off New Hampshire first-in-the-nation
primary, the nine voters were split at two votes each for Romney
WHO CAN DEFEAT OBAMA?
Some voters expressed strong support for Romney.
"I saw him work as a businessman, he sees what needs to be
done and gets it done," said nurse Dennis Hamson, 58, who was
voting in Londonderry early on Tuesday.
But not everyone was happy about voting for him.
Eli Haykinson of Bedford said he did not want to vote for
Romney but might have to because he could have the best chance
to defeat Obama. "I personally don't like his huge campaign
style. You don't really get to feel him at all," Haykinson said.
Romney's rivals were mostly waging a fierce battle to sway
undecided voters their way and win second place. "He's a
homeboy. He's been here for a whole lot of years... you serve in
the neighboring state as governor, you've got a lot of
advantages in terms of name recognition," Huntsman said on
Both libertarian U.S. Representative Paul and Huntsman, a
former Utah governor who was the U.S. ambassador to China, have
been on the rise in recent days.
Santorum, who nearly won Iowa by appealing to social
conservatives, has not seen that message resonate in New
Voter Luke Breen, 52, a financial analyst voting in
Londonderry, where many residents commute to Boston, said he
would not support a candidate who seemed intolerant and had
"He seemed to be more worldly," he said. "I know gay people
and everyone has to have gay rights under our constitution."
Santorum and Perry, along with Gingrich, are looking ahead
to South Carolina to challenge Romney.
Romney leads there for now but Gingrich backers have
launched $3.4 million worth of ads in South Carolina to try to
slow him down in the more conservative southern state.
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Writing by
Steve Holland and Patricia Zengerle, editing by xxxx)
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