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.
Romney's GOP rivals are working overtime to cast him as too timid and too moderate: They're urging Republicans to do themselves a favor and nominate a more conservative standard-bearer offering a sharper contrast to Obama.
"The only way Republicans lose is if we screw this up and nominate another moderate who has taken multiple positions on every major issue of our time," Santorum told supporters in a fundraising appeal Friday.
Gingrich argued on morning TV news shows that Romney can't win the nomination and said that even if he did, his performance against Obama in the general election campaign debates would simply draw a laugh from the president.
The former House speaker, speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," predicted that Romney would win New Hampshire but that one of the former Massachusetts governor's GOP rivals "will eventually emerge as the conservative alternative and will beat Romney."
Romney is heavily favored to win Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, so much so that he can afford to focus on South Carolina, where voters aren't due to cast primary ballots for another two weeks. While the new poll put Romney out front in South Carolina, 49 percent of respondents said they still might change their minds.
The survey had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points. McCain told voters there that Romney could effectively clinch the GOP nomination with a South Carolina win on Jan. 21. "It's going to come down, as it always does, to South Carolina," he said.
The Arizona senator hammered at Gingrich and Santorum for backing government spending on legislators' special projects, known as "earmarks," when they were in Congress, telling voters, "My friends, earmarks are the gateway to corruption."
Santorum, who faced tough questioning from voters throughout the day about his policies, countered that it "just absurd" to characterize him as an irresponsible spender just because he supported earmarks.
"This is John McCain trying to put his imprimatur on the Republican, conservative movement," Santorum said, adding that McCain had failed to lead on overhauling Social Security, Medicare and other government programs.
Romney kept his focus on Obama, telling his audience in Conway that the president's proposal to reduce the military and focus more on Asia was "inexcusable, unthinkable and it must be reversed."
His allies were fully engaged in the tussle over which GOP candidate is the true conservative. Romney showcased the endorsement of conservative leader Bay Buchanan, whose brother Pat won the New Hampshire primary in 1996. Bay Buchanan cast Romney as a "real conservative" who could get things done.
Restore Our Future, the pro-Romney super PAC that unloaded a barrage of negative TV ads on Gingrich in Iowa, planned to go after him again - this time in print.
The group announced it had purchased full-page newspaper ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina tying the former House speaker to Obama.
"On issue after issue, Newt Gingrich and Barack Obama have so much in common, the right choice is to choose neither," the ad said, ticking through issues including Gingrich's support for the federal bank bailout and favoring "amnesty" for illegal immigrants Jon Huntsman, who bypassed Iowa to bet his campaign on a good finish in New Hampshire, was showing off an endorsement by The Boston Globe, Romney's hometown paper.
It was the second time Massachusetts' largest newspaper had snubbed Romney ahead of the New Hampshire primary.
Campaigning in Concord, N.H, Huntsman was asked by an audience member whether the other candidates have "clawed their way to the right," leaving him as the centrist in the race. Huntsman didn't accept the label but called himself a realist instead.
"We have to draw from ideas that are doable and not so outlandishly stupid that they create a lot of political infighting and finger-pointing and never, ever in 1000 years are going to get done," he said.
Also vying to emerge as Romney's chief rival were Texas Rep. Ron Paul and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
Perry, who finished fifth in Iowa, released a biographical ad in South Carolina that spokesman Ray Sullivan said shows his "perfect-for-South-Carolina status" as a conservative man of faith and a veteran.
Paul, who placed third in Iowa, was arriving in New Hampshire on Friday, in time to participate in a pair of weekend debates.