Mike Huckabee, who took first place in the Iowa caucuses but trails in the nation's first primary, downplayed his own prospects but said: "We're going to do better than expected."
Wide open and intense, the race for the Republican nomination has gotten ever tighter. A pair of fresh polls showed McCain, the Arizona senator, slightly ahead of Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, two days before New Hampshire votes. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, staking his hopes on later states, is trying to hold off Huckabee for third.
The stakes are huge for both McCain and Romney.
Romney, who pinned his presidential bid on using momentum from big wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, needs a victory to prove his candidacy isn't crippled after an Iowa drubbing. McCain has put all his chips on a New Hampshire victory that would repeat his success here eight years ago.
They, and three of their opponents, meet Sunday night for a candidate forum, a day after Romney faced heat from his opponents in a debate for running critical ads and shifting his positions on several issues. The debate overshadowed his victory Saturday in the scarcely contested Wyoming caucuses.
The acrimony of Saturday night spilled over into Sunday morning as the top candidates made the rounds of TV news shows before heading out for campaign stops in snowy New Hampshire. They sought to correct their own verbal missteps as well as take swipes at their opponents.
At the same time, a slew of staff members and a crush of volunteers for every candidate worked to urge Republicans and independents alike to vote Tuesday. New Hampshire residents were inundated with multiple phone calls and knocks on the door. With such a tight race, candidates are mindful that turnout will be critical.
For Romney, the day served as a final push to turn voters away from McCain.
"Whether it happens here in New Hampshire, or whether it goes on to Michigan, I don't think the American people are going to line up behind John McCain," Romney said, calling his rival wrong on taxes and immigration.
In Nashua before a crowd of 300, Romney pounded McCain for saying yet again Sunday that he was right to vote against a set of Bush administration tax cuts. "He's simply wrong. Now he's consistent, but he's wrong, and I'll take being right over being consistent every day of the week," Romney said.
Earlier Sunday, Romney conceded he was incorrect when he said the night before that none of his TV ads accuse McCain of favoring "amnesty" for backing an eventual path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrations. Later as he campaigned, he called McCain's position "a form of amnesty" and added: "In my opinion, that is wrong."
Romney blamed McCain's campaign for the frequent characterization of him as a flip-flopper.
During television interviews, Romney argued that his positions as he runs for president are consistent with the actions he took as governor -- despite evidence that he has shifted to the right on some issues. He castigated politicians who he said are more interested in personal insults than changing government -- even as his campaign sought to portray McCain as a nasty candidate who has a record of personally going after opponents.
McCain, for his part, tried to walk a careful line.
He didn't mention his opponent during a question-and-answer session at a Salem school, and he mostly resisted engaging in a back-and-forth with Romney when pressed by reporters. He insisted he was focused on running a positive campaign.
McCain, did, however, repeat a claim against Romney that has almost become a standard part of his pitch: "He has changed his position on almost every major issue," McCain said at one point then added: "That doesn't mean he's not a good person."
Projecting confidence, McCain proclaimed in a TV interview: "I will win." Underscoring how much is at stake in New Hampshire, he added that victory is "vital" to his candidacy.
Later on his campaign bus, McCain qualified his prediction of a New Hampshire victory. "I believe I will win, but a lot of things can happen between now and Tuesday when the polls close," McCain said, adding that many New Hampshire Republicans still haven't decided whom to support.
Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, spoke of "a brotherhood" of sorts with McCain, fueled by Romney's criticism. "We have both been brutally assaulted by Governor Romney with amazingly misleading ads that attacked and distorted and misrepresented our records, Romney attacking me in Iowa, attacking him in New Hampshire," Huckabee said.
At the same time, Huckabee, who has styled himself as a straight-shooting candidate, confronted his own string of inconsistencies, including recent ones on the troop increase strategy in Iraq, the Writers Guild Strike, and gambling.
"People are going to go through and nitpick. And that's fine," he said. "But I'll tell you why we won Iowa. We won Iowa because people believed that there was a need for somebody who had clarity in his positions. And I've stuck by those positions."
He said he hasn't changed his positions on gun rights, life issues, family values and President Bush's tax cuts. He said he had made some verbal slips but "I think most of us do, especially if we talk as much as politicians do."