HENNIKER, N.H. -- New Hampshire was supposed to be the easy state.
As he works to reclaim his dominance in Iowa, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is struggling to stop the slippage in his poll numbers here, a state where he is well-known, where he owns a vacation home and next door to which he governed for four years.
Making matters worse, Romney is suddenly facing unusually personal criticism from two of the state's leading newspapers, The New Hampshire Union Leader and The Concord Monitor, which in recent days have expressed skepticism about his authenticity and truthfulness.
The Monitor, a liberal newspaper whose endorsement Romney had sought, described him as "a disquieting figure who sure looks like the next president and most surely must be stopped."
The Union Leader, which has endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain, Romney's biggest challenger in the state, said yesterday, "The more Mitt Romney speaks, the less believable he becomes."
Romney aides dismissed the criticism, citing a slew of conservative endorsements, including that of New Hampshire's senior senator, Republican Judd Gregg. But the climate here seems to be changing, prompting Romney to go on the offense.
"I'm happy to talk about the times when I've been wrong, but I don't recall Sen. McCain saying he was wrong to say all illegal aliens can stay here permanently or that he was wrong to vote against the Bush tax cuts," Romney said.
In a quick reply, McCain accused Romney of desperate tactics designed for desperate times.
"I know something about tailspins, and it's pretty clear Mitt Romney is in one," McCain said in a statement.
Romney has spent millions of dollars attempting to guarantee victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
A poll in Sunday's Boston Globe poll put Romney and McCain in a statistical tie, after months in which Romney easily led the Republican pack.
Donna Sytek, Romney's New Hampshire co-chair, said no one advising Romney is surprised by the criticism, nor surprised that the race is close. "That's because of being a front-runner. Everybody takes shots at you," Sytek said of the one-two punch from the newspapers.
But the tightness of the contest means that Romney will be working to separate himself from the other candidates, she said.
"He's much more likely to say, 'Unlike others who believe such and so about immigration' to remind people" of differences.
Jill Zuckman writes for the Chicago Tribune.