Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman increased pressure on front-runner Mitt Romney, saying he was "making himself completely unelectable" with gaffes about firing people during 2012 US election race.
Speaking before his final rally on Monday night before today’s primary in New Hampshire, Mr Huntsman warned that such insensitivity meant Mr Romney risked “losing the high ground”.
“Words and statements matter and when you are in a heated campaign,” he told CNBC. “You have got to be able to put this forward in ways that make people understand where you are going and not in comments that are going to make it impossible for you to get elected at the end of the day.
“I just want to make sure we can get somebody who can go up against Barack Obamaand not be chewed up by the political machine that’s going to have a billion dollars to spend.”
During a speech to business leaders earlier on Monday Mr Romney said, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” when talking about how employees should be able to choose their own health insurance.
It was his first major slip-up in what has been a highly disciplined campaign that saw him win the first contest in Iowa by a whisker and head into today’s vote with a 33-point lead in New Hampshire. The record of Bain Capital, the company he led for 14 years, has however come under intensified scrutiny as his rivals have sought to slow down his apparently smooth progress to the nomination. It has emerged that many companies it restructured shed jobs or ended up in bankruptcy while its shareholders made large profits.
Mr Romney responded his remarks were taken out of context, but said he understood that was part of the rough and tumble of electoral politics. Supporters said it was outrageous for Republicans to attack him for engaging in free enterprise.
Mr Huntsman, a former governor of Utah running as a moderate, has enjoyed last minute momentum, rising to third place in a Suffolk University poll with 13 per cent, behind Ron Paul, the maverick Texas congressman.
Given that about 40 per cent of voters were undecided as of yesterday, a last minute surge into second place cannot be ruled out, and his events on Monday were mobbed.
“We did nine events today [Monday] and we are going to work hard until 7 o’clock tomorrow night,” said John Weaver, Mr Huntsman’s chief strategist.
After trailing far behind with single digit polling figures, Mr Weaver said the campaign had “like Indiana Jones, at the last possible moment when we were falling down the cliff clung on”.
“We have momentum. The front-runner couldn’t have had a worse 72 hours, and he is going to leave New Hampshire far weaker than when he entered it, with a terrible message going to a state that has unemployment worse than the national average,” he continued, referring to South Carolina, where the next primary will be held on Jan 21.
He added Mr Romney’s comment about firing people fitted “into a pattern of gaffes about the economy and shows an inability to connect with working people”.
“It makes him unelectable,” he said, echoing Mr Huntsman. “Our goal beyond New Hampshire is to “get into a mano a mano campaign with him”.
Mr Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to stake his entire nomination bid on today's primary, has enjoyed late success thanks in part to standing up to Mr Romney during Sunday morning's televised debate.
The former Massachusetts governor complained that Mr Huntsman had chosen to work for a Democratic president while “the rest of us on this stage were working to get Republicans elected”.
A clearly furious Mr Huntsman said the next morning that he had been attacked for “putting my country first” at a time when Mr Romney “was out making money”, to enthusiastic applause. “This nation is divided because of attitudes like that,” he said.
Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, who has led the attacks on Mr Romney, condemned Bain for “looting” companies and leaving behind “broken families and broken neighbourhoods”.
Insisting he was “totally for capitalism,” he contrasted Bill Gates and Microsoft becoming “extraordinarily rich” by “providing a service” with turnaround firms such as Bain stripping companies down for profit.
“You have to ask the question,” Mr Gingrich said. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money, or is that in fact a little bit of a flawed system?”
Mr Gingrich has used a $5 million (£3.2 million) donation from a Las Vegas casino tycoon to release a half-hour film sharply attacking Mr Romney's record in business.
'The King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town' features the stories of four ordinary Americans who say their lives were ruined when Mr Romney's firm took over the companies they worked for, causing them to lose their jobs and homes.
The film, which is being broadcast in South Carolina, also shows footage of Mr Romney saying that “corporations are people” and an already infamous 1984 image of Mr Romney and Bain colleagues posing with dollar bills sticking out of their jackets, ears and mouths.