Romney raps Obama in SC; GOP rivals pile on in NH

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CONWAY, S.C. (AP) - Looking beyond an expected win in New Hampshire, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney reached out to South Carolina voters Friday with a two-track argument that President Barack Obama has mishandled the economy and devised an "inexcusable, unthinkable" plan to shrink the U.S. military.

His GOP rivals kept up an anti-Romney drumbeat in New Hampshire, hoping to chip away at his support and slow his momentum.

The Republicans' 2008 nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, teamed up with Romney in South Carolina and invested huge importance in the state's verdict.

"If Mitt Romney wins here, he will be the next president of the United States," McCain told the crowd at a century-old peanut warehouse near Myrtle Beach, where the two campaigned with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.

A new poll showed Romney gaining significant ground in the state. The TIME/CNN/ORC poll had Romney leading with 37 percent support, a 17-point gain since early December.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was at 19 percent, a 15-point surge, and was nearly tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who had plummeted from 43 percent support in early December Romney kept up his criticism of Obama as a jobs killer but didn't get much message reinforcement from the government on Friday:

The Labor Department reported that employers added a net 200,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent, the fourth straight monthly drop. Romney said the report contains some good news, but that America still "deserves better."

''Thirty-five consecutive months of unemployment above 8 percent is no cause for celebration," he said in a written statement.

Santorum, campaigning in New Hampshire, said the uptick had come "despite the president's jobs policy," and he managed to claim credit for Republicans. Santorum suggested the boost was tied to voters' optimism that a Republican would win the White House.

Gingrich, for his part, dismissed the job gains as inadequate.

"I think the president's program is slowing down the recovery, rather than accelerating it," he said. Obama savored the positive economic news, calling it "real progress."

And he took care of some campaign business by going out to lunch with four Americans who won a contest that lets small-dollar donors nosh with the president.


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