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Under siege in New Hampshire, Romney steps up counterattack


MADISON, N.H. -- With former House Speaker Newt Gingrich campaigning on his home turf of New Hampshire, Mitt Romney on Monday seemed to relish the opportunity to defend his Granite State fortress and step up his attack on Gingrich for his decades spent in Washington.

"I'm somebody who sees government as playing the role of encouraging our private sector to create jobs because I spent my life in the private sector. Speaker Gingrich has spent the last thirty years in Washington," Romney said. "If you think that a background in Washington and working to connect various people to Washington leaders and being in government affairs is what we need in Washington, why, he’s the guy."

The sarcasm was evident in Romney's response at this afternoon's town hall in Madison. Gingrich's creeping strength in New Hampshire is also evident, though. The state is a cornerstone of the former Massachusetts governor's White House dreams. In the latest NBC News/Marist poll of the state, Gingrich had cut Romney's once massive lead in the state to just 12 points.

Today, Romney's campaign continued to blister the former speaker in press releases and with surrogates, and Romney himself joined the fray by calling for Gingrich to return the estimated $1.6 million dollars he earned while under contract at Freddie Mac. When Romney was asked by a reporter to respond to Gingrich's counter-proposal that Romney return the money he may buying businesses at Bain, some of which ultimately failed, leading to layoffs, Romney scoffed.

"Doesn't he understand how the economy works? In the real economy some businesses succeed and some fail," Romney said. "The four enterprises I led were all successful. There's a big difference between working in the private economy and working on K street. Working as a lobbyist or working as a legislator or working to connect businesses with government."

NBC News also asked the famously buttoned-down Romney whether he needed to change his rhetorical style to prove to the Republican base that he too, like Gingrich, could "take it to" President Obama. Romney, who holds a 21-point lead in New Hampshire amongst Independent voters, responded that he would not do so and risk alienating the voters he might need to ultimately unseat the president.

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"My own view is you take it to President Obama by describing his failures. Not by saying things that people who voted for him in the past that we need to vote for us now, will find offensive. I know that among some folks saying outrageous or incendiary things will get you a lot of kudos or get your numbers up, but its not going to win us the White House," Romney said. "I think this president has been an extraordinary failure. I think this president has taken on a job and he's way over his head - but I don't think he's an evil person or a bad person. I think he's an uninformed, inexperienced person who doesn't know what it takes to get an economy to work.

Mixed in with his campaign's effort to diminish Gingrich and hit the president today was Romney's own charm offensive to win over uncommitted New Hamshirites, including accepting two local endorsements. Manchester Mayor Ted Gastas signed on during a breakfast stop at a diner, and anti-tax activist Tom Thomson lent his gigantic, tax-cutting axe to the Romney cause at the afternoon town hall.

Romney also continued his detente with reporters, holding his fifth press availability in his last six events, and sitting for at least two interviews.

The multi-millionaire former CEO, possibly still smarting from shots he took over Saturday's "$10,000 bet" moment also showed a little bit more of his personal side than usual. When asked to explain how he could understand the plight of those less fortunate than himself, Romney went into greater detail about a topic he once rarely mentioned -- his time serving in the role of a pastor in Boston's Mormon community.

"I had the pastoral assignment for about 10 years, maybe longer than that. And in that responsibility I had the occasion to counsel with people. Sometimes people with marital problems, sometimes with a child that was errant, and a lot of times with people who had financial difficulties." Romney said, later adding he ultimately learned from the experience. "We're all the same in the things we aspire for. The things we love: our family, our faith, our country. People are patriotic, rich or poor."