Beyond the town-by-town topsy-turvy of primary campaigning in New Hampshire, conservative Republicans nationally are agonising over whether they still have time to unite behind one of their own to stop moderate Mitt Romney from bulldozing his way to the party's presidential nomination.

While fresh polls suggest New Hampshire will deliver a solid victory to Romney on Wednesday, there were fresh signs yesterday that Rick Santorum, who came within a whisker of winning the Iowa caucuses last week, is picking up steam, if not here then certainly in South Carolina, a state heavy with evangelical voters, which polls a week on Sunday.

Most attention in New Hampshire is now focused on how the candidates stack up beneath Romney, who has an edge here as the former governor of neighbouring Massachusetts.

Last night Romney brushed aside rivals' criticism in the first of two New Hampshire debates that left his challengers squabbling. He largely ignored his fellow Republicans and turned instead on President Barack Obama. "His policies have made the recession deeper and his policies have made the recovery more tepid," Romney said, despite a declining unemployment rate and the creation of 200,000 jobs last month.


Former Pennsylvania senator Santorum dismissed Romney as a mere manager. "Being a president is not a CEO. You've got to lead and inspire."

Ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich referred to published accounts that described how some workers were laid off after Bain Capital - the firm Romney once led - invested in their companies and sought to turn them around. He said Romney should be judged on whether "on balance, were people better off or worse off by this style of management."

Unruffled, Romney retorted that Bain had created 100,000 jobs on balance, and that a businessman's experience was far better to fix the economy that a lifetime spent in Washington, DC. Later, he accused the President of trying to turn the United States into a "European-style welfare state".

In a sign of the right's agitation, a cabal of Christian right heavyweights gathered behind closed doors in a private home northwest of Houston, Texas, co-hosted by former presidential candidate Gary Bauer. On the agenda: what they can do, if anything, to salvage the nomination race for the conservative wing of the party.

After flirting with one conservative alternative after another non-Romney Republicans in Iowa stampeded at the 11th hour to Santorum, an anti-gay rights, anti-abortion former US senator whose Christian views include suggesting that individual US states should be allowed to ban contraception if they like.

"Conservatives are still divided among a number of different candidates, but the field is winnowing," Bauer said. "I certainly think that Senator Santorum is in a good position to inherit a lot of that support."

Romney is distrusted by the Christian right because of moderate positions. He essentially tied with Santorum in Iowa. If he wins in New Hampshire and then in South Carolina and in Florida, which votes on February 1, he may quickly become the presumptive nominee.

Support for Romney has until now been stuck at about 25 per cent. But he remains confident because conservative Republicans continue to divide their support among his right-wing rivals - Santorum, Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and also Texas congressman Ron Paul. Corralling them into supporting just one of those candidates will be far from easy. The desire is strong.

"There is movement, even members of Congress who are weighing this now who are looking to make a move," Tony Perkins, president of the ultra-conservative Family Research Council commented. "We're moving closer to a point where decisions need to be made. I do think you'll see growing momentum towards Rick Santorum."

"It's time for the conservatives to get off the sidelines and get into the arena, and make our choice known," chimed in Richard Viguerie, a veteran fundraiser for Republicans. "There was Rick Santorum, in plain sight, all along."

Paul, whose libertarian bona fides should endear him to a state that has "Live Free or Die" on its number plates, has been distracted by the uproar caused when an affiliated group released a racially charged online spot targeting Jon Huntsman, the former Utah Governor, the only other moderate challenging Romney. The segment features Huntsman's two adopted Asian daughters and asks: "American values? Or Chinese?"

A CNN poll for South Carolina shows Romney with an impressive 37 per cent of support. After him come Santorum and Gingrich with 19 and 18 per cent respectively.