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A Final Pre-Christmas Push by GOP Field

McCain is surging in New Hampshire. (Getty).

Updated 6:40 p.m.
By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
The Iowa caucuses are only 11 days away, but it's worth remembering that while the presidential contest begins in the Hawkeye State, it won't end there.

In fact, the Republican race is being just as closely fought in New Hampshire, where former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney spent Sunday campaigning in an effort to stay ahead of a surging Arizona Sen. John McCain.

McCain is riding a wave of endorsements that kept coming this weekend with the Union Leader saying in an editorial that voters should elect McCain: "Kill The Pork! Elect The Guy With The Knife." A poll over the weekend put McCain at just two points behind Romney in a state where the former Massachusetts governor has been ahead for months.

At the same time, Romney was the victim of a rare attack editorial by the Concord Monitor, whose editors urged readers to "stop Mitt Romney." If Romney loses Iowa, winning New Hampshire will be critical to his hopes for the nomination -- which is why he spent Sunday in Milford, Peterborough and Hillsborough, N.H.

McCain spent the weekend at home in Arizona, but that didn't stop the tussling between his campaign and Romney's. In a town hall meeting with several hundred voters in Peterborough, Romney charged McCain with having failed to learn the lessons of Ronald Reagan by voting against President Bush's tax cuts. "I believe in the pathway Ronald Reagan championed," Romney said. McCain, he added, "is a good man but we have different views of this. I believe in pushing taxes down."

McCain has said on the campaign trail that he opposed Bush's tax cuts because they were not paired with spending cuts, but also has said that he now believes that the tax cuts helped spur the economy. The McCain campaign fired back late in the day against Romney's latest criticism, offering a reminder of Romney's comments while running against Ted Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994, when he declared: "I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush ... I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush."

"Welcome to Mitt Romney's bizarro world, in which everyone is guilty of his sins," said McCain spokesman Mark Salter. "He didn't support Ronald Reagan. He didn't support President Bush's tax cuts. He raised taxes in Massachusetts by $700 million. He knows John McCain is gaining on him so he does what any small varmint gun totin,' civil rights marching, NRA endorsed fantasy candidate would do: he questions someone else's credibility. New Hampshire is on to you, Mitt. Give it a rest. It's Christmas."

Notably absent from Romney's remarks today were direct criticisms of Rudy Giuliani, who has been dropping in the polls in New Hampshire and has scaled back his advertising spending here. In past weeks, Romney used questions about immigration to attack Giuliani for maintaining New York as a "sanctuary city" for illegal immigrants, but he left that out in discussing immigration today.

At Romney's final event of the day, at a pizzeria in Hillsborough, his New Hampshire campaign chairman, former gubernatorial candidate Bruce Keough, hit McCain for his position on tax cuts again in a brief interview. Keough said he was not worried about McCain's rise in the polls because he predicted that McCain would now start getting the level of scrutiny that Romney had received in recent months.

"People are starting to learn that he voted against the Bush tax cuts twice, and that he sounded a lot like Hillary Clinton and John Edwards when he did so," said Keough. The New Hampshire race, he added, "is tightening, but it always tightens. When it comes down to it, voters are going to ask who has the energy and the enthusiasm, and [Romney] looks really good compared to the competition" on those scores.

Giuliani also campaigned in New Hampshire Sunday, hoping to salvage a third-place finish in the state after largely pulling out his resources in the last week. Giuliani met with voters in Hampstead and Hampton.

Meanwhile, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee spent the day in Texas, where he was raising money and speaking to a church group.

Former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson was at home after being forced to cancel a final day in Iowa on Saturday due to weather.

All of the Republican candidates planned two days off for Christmas before returning to the trail on Dec. 26.

By Web Politics Editor  |  December 23, 2007; 6:40 PM ET
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