HANOVER, N.H. (AP) – Hours before he expected to fend off sharp criticism from his Republican rivals, presidential contender Mitt Romney turned the tables on Texas Gov. Rick Perry and called on him to disavow comments from an ally who likened his faith to a “cult.”

Romney urged the Texas governor to reject “divisiveness” and called on Perry “to repudiate the sentiment and the remarks.” Perry, through a spokesman, declined and said Romney’s remarks represent “political rhetoric from Gov. Romney that isn’t going to create one new job.”

If the afternoon exchange were a clue, the evening debate could be a spirited back-and-forth between the pair, as well as an opportunity for the other White House hopefuls to level a devastating blow to the former Massachusetts governor on his home turf.

Health care, the environment and immigration all were ripe targets for Romney’s rivals, and they hinted they were primed to contrast their records with his ahead of Tuesday evening’s debate. With time ticking down for them to derail Romney’s presidential campaign, the criticism was expected to take on a stronger tone.

“Gov. Romney personally insisted the government mandate requiring private citizens to buy health insurance be included in his Massachusetts government health care law,” said Mark Miner, a spokesman for Perry, seizing on conservatives’ disdain for Massachusetts’ mandate.

“It is becoming more and more clear that I am the only tried-and-true conservative running for president in 2012,” former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania told supporters ahead of the forum at Dartmouth College.

With the Republican presidential race moving closer to the first contests, scheduled around New Year’s Day, the candidates are turning to a scattershot effort to deny Romney the nomination by any means necessary. They are using his reversals on abortion and gay rights, his support for environmental policies and even his character.

His rivals hope that, when taken together, it could be enough to stop his second presidential bid. Romney has a comfortable lead in New Hampshire polling after virtually camping out in the state since his 2008 loss and building a strong statewide campaign network.

The debate was designed to be on the economy — voters’ top concern in a nation that recorded 9.1 percent unemployment last month — but there was scant chance Romney would be able to dodge questions about his record.

The criticism so far, though, has not thrown Romney off pace. Nothing, to this point, has started an exodus among his supporters. And time is running short for Romney’s rivals to make that happen.

While New Hampshire has yet to schedule its primary, it is likely to come before mid-January. That means there are fewer than 100 days for the newcomers to make inroads in New Hampshire, a state where Romney is well-known, owns a vacation home and won a second-place finish in his 2008 presidential bid.

Looking to soften the criticism, Romney picked up an endorsement from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a conservative darling who had weighed a presidential bid of his own. Romney’s team used an afternoon photo opportunity to go after comments from a Perry backer last week that disparaged Romney’s Mormon faith.

Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, who endorsed Perry’s presidential bid and introduced him ahead of a speech to cultural conservatives in Washington last week, contrasted Perry’s religion with Romney’s, and in comments to reporters called Mormonism “a cult” and said Romney is “not a Christian.”

Perry’s campaign said it didn’t share those views but refused to repudiate them.

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, businessman Herman Cain, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were also set to join the debate.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)