Romney Stumbles While Speaking In N.H.

New Hampshire voters will either catapult Mitt Romney securely onto the path to the Republican presidential nomination or undercut the air of inevitability surrounding his campaign. The former Massachusetts governor has been anticipating a catapult. But Monday, he stumbled.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Audie Cornish. Tomorrow, New Hampshire voters will either catapult Mitt Romney securely onto the path to the Republican presidential nomination or undercut the air of inevitability around his campaign.

As NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the former Massachusetts governor has been anticipating the catapult, but today, he stumbled.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Mitt Romney expected to spend his last full day on the New Hampshire campaign trail cruising to victory: friendly crowds and familiar faces in a state where he's been campaigning virtually nonstop for five years. He did not expect to be saying these sorts of things at a hastily called news conference.

MITT ROMNEY: Things can always be taken out of context and I understand. You know the context of what I was saying, which is - I understand that, in politics, people are going to try and grasp at anything, take it out of context and...

SHAPIRO: Here's what happened. This morning, in Nashua, Romney seemed cruising to a win. He was so confident, in fact, that he even veered left at a breakfast of business leaders, repositioning himself for a day when he is the Republican nominee and more moderate positions might win over independent voters.

Romney talked about the good side of banking regulations.

ROMNEY: You can't have everybody in the room deciding to open a bank in their garage and take other people's money.

SHAPIRO: He even sounded like a fan of social welfare programs.

ROMNEY: Our very poor always need to have a safety net, and occasionally, there are holes in the safety net that need to be repaired and as I become aware of that, I'll fix those things.

SHAPIRO: But while sailing happily toward the political center, Romney hit a storm. A man asked about what he would put in place of President Obama's health care plan and the former Massachusetts governor replied...

ROMNEY: I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people that provide services to me.

SHAPIRO: I like being able to fire people. Out of context, the line plays into every negative stereotype of Mitt Romney as the coldhearted businessman who made his fortune laying people off. His rivals piled on immediately. Jon Huntsman said Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.

The Democratic National Committee sent out a blast email with a link to the video. At a metal fabricating plant in Hudson, the campaign pulled together that last minute news conference.

ROMNEY: Oh, you saw. I was talking about insurance companies. Yeah. We like to be able to get rid of insurance companies that don't give us the service that we need.

SHAPIRO: His business record had already been under attack from the other Republicans in the race. They seized on this comment from the weekend.

ROMNEY: I know what it's like to worry whether you're going to get fired. There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.

SHAPIRO: His rivals say that sounds absurd coming from a man whose father was a millionaire. Campaigning in South Carolina, Texas Governor Rick Perry told FOX News...

GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Mitt Romney's never worried about a pink slip. Well, he might have worried about not having enough of them to hand out.

SHAPIRO: And a super pack affiliated with Newt Gingrich is promoting a new video accusing Romney's investment firm of making huge fortunes at the expense of American jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Their greed was only matched by their willingness to do anything to make millions in profits.

SHAPIRO: Romney insists that his firm, Bain Capital, created far more jobs than it cut, but his campaign has not provided the full accounting to back up those claims.

Speaking to reporters today, Romney tried to shrug off these attacks, but his explanation seemed to contain a gaff of its own.

ROMNEY: If you think that I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience, that that would make me a very different person than I am.

SHAPIRO: The gaffs clearly rattled Romney's team that has built a reputation on being disciplined. The campaign is ready for a long fight through one primary state after another, but they would prefer a quick, clean victory by a decisive margin.

Here in New Hampshire, Romney has deep enough roots and a strong enough lead that his rivals don't really expect to knock him out of first place tomorrow night. Many of them are looking ahead to next week in South Carolina, where voters are more conservative and perhaps Romney could be more vulnerable.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire.

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