HUDSON, N.H. -- As they made last-minute appeals for votes Monday, Republican presidential candidates were looking beyond the New Hampshire horizon to the primary contests whose dynamics will be shaped by Tuesday's tallies.
"There is going to be somebody emerging that has conservative credentials as the anti-Romney; I think that is going to be Rick Santorum," said John Brabender, a longtime strategist for the former Pennsylvania senator, said after Sunday's final debate. "I think you'll see that developing more after New Hampshire and South Carolina. If that happens, that means that's really when the primaries start."
At a town-hall meeting in Hudson, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made his increasingly aggressive case to be the alternative to the current front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Mr. Gingrich repeatedly assailed his opponent as "a Massachusetts moderate" who would be ill-equipped to draw comparisons with President Obama in the November election.
Mr. Gingrich steered his listeners to a new "fun" Web site that his campaign has put up that enumerates tax changes and fee increases in the neighboring state during Mr. Romney's time at its helm.
Mr. Gingrich explained that the site was part of a turn from his Iowa campaign style to a more confrontational approach to candidates who had criticized him. That approach was on display in an NBC interview earlier in the day when Mr. Gingrich said Mr. Romney's old firm, Bain Capital, "apparently looted" companies it took over to provide big returns to its investors.
As he spoke, a super-PAC supporting his campaign was preparing to broadcast ads in South Carolina assailing Mr. Romney's role at the turnaround firm, a line of attack that the Democratic National Committee has been pressing for weeks. The New York Times reported that the PAC would spend at least $3.4 million in the Palmetto State assault.
'Fire people' comment
At a morning speech before the Chamber of Commerce in nearby Nashua, N.H., Mr. Romney unwittingly helped to reinforce the attack.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," he said, in making a fairly uncontroversial point about the virtues of consumer choice in health insurance. But some of his rivals seized on the first part of the quote -- "I like being able to fire people" -- to underline their portrayal of Mr. Romney as a ruthless businessman whose firm had destroyed jobs.
Despite the new criticisms, and the multiple attacks he faced from his opponents in the campaign's final debate, Mr. Romney goes into primary-election day in New Hampshire in a seemingly commanding position.
On Sunday, Tom Rath, a former state attorney general and a senior adviser to a campaign that has run consistently ahead in polling, expressed cautious optimism on the path ahead for a candidate who finished a disappointing second in New Hampshire four years ago.
"Assuming that things go reasonably well Tuesday, I think, pyramiding South Carolina on what we've done in Iowa and here, it will give us a lot of momentum and cause a lot of people in South Carolina who maybe hadn't looked at us before to take us pretty seriously," he said. "It's encouraging, but, as I say, you're not going to know what the situation is on the ground there until we get though here."
As for other candidates, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman made a morning stop across from the state Capitol in Concord, mixing with supporters gathered outside Eagle Square, an upscale retail complex.
He walked down a chilly but sunny street to chants of "Join the hunt; join the hunt," then urged a small but supportive crowd to confound the skepticism about his campaign. "All the conventional wisdom you've been hearing will be upended -- because that's what you do in New Hampshire," he assured them.
Mr. Huntsman remains far off the pace in a state in which he has invested virtually all of his campaign time, but his numbers have ticked upward in each of the past few days.
The polls that help form the conventional wisdom that Mr. Huntsman questioned were not identical, but they agreed that Mr. Romney came out of the final weekend with a double digit lead.
Big lead in polls
In the final survey released by WMUR, the state's dominant television station, Mr. Romney held a 24-percentage-point lead. A daily tracking survey conduced by Suffolk University, however, showed the front-runner up by 13 points, with some erosion in the final days of campaigning.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a close third-place finisher in Iowa, was second in both surveys.
And in both, the contest for third place was anyone's guess as Mr. Huntsman, Mr. Gingrich, and Mr. Santorum were closely bunched, with the differences among them within the surveys' margins of error.
WMUR found Mr. Paul at 17 percent, followed by Mr. Huntsman, 11 percent; Mr. Santorum, 11 percent; and Mr. Gingrich, 8 percent. The rest of the Suffolk tracking field had Mr. Paul at 20 percent; Mr. Huntsman, 13 percent; Mr. Gingrich, 11 percent; and Mr. Santorum, 10 percent.
William Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, predicts that roughly 250,000 people will cast Republican ballots Tuesday.
That would be about twice the number who showed up at Iowa's caucuses last week when Mr. Romney edged Mr. Santorum by just eight votes among about 123,000 cast. The New Hampshire voting will include independents, or, as they are designated, "undeclared" voters who, according to recent survey, represent a particular target for Mr. Paul and Mr. Huntsman.
Voters will choose among 30 candidates on the GOP ballot.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Obama has 14 nominal challengers. In addition to the state's traditional roster of obscure contenders, the Republican ballot includes several reminders of what a tumultuous campaign the Republicans have experienced so far. Those names include Rep. Michele Bachmann and businessman Herman Cain, one-time front-runners who have dropped their bids, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Although he participated in Sunday's debate, Mr. Perry is not making a serious effort in the Granite State. Instead, he is awaiting his rivals in South Carolina, one more claimant to the role of chief rival to Mr. Romney.
As New Hampshire voters were poised to cast their ballots, Mr. Romney remained in first place in new surveys in South Carolina, whose primary is on Jan. 21, and Florida, where ballots will be cast 10 days later. Public Policy Polling found Mr. Romney leading in South Carolina with 30 percent, followed by Mr. Gingrich at 23 percent, and Mr. Santorum, 19 percent.
A Quinnipiac University Florida poll had Mr. Romney at 36 percent, followed by Mr. Gingrich, 24 percent, and Mr. Santorum, 16 percent.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: email@example.com, or 412-263-1562.