NASHUA, N.H. – The Democrats started it, and now Republican rivals are piling on. Mitt Romney is suddenly playing defense about his career as a venture capitalist--and in a Republican primary campaign, of all things.
The attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital career from fellow Republicans may be coming too late in the game to knock him off his path toward the nomination. They may also be ineffective in a party that lionizes capitalism and the business sector that propels it. Raising hackles about Romney's flip-flops on abortion and other key issues and comparing his Massachusetts health law to "Obamacare'' seems like safer ground.
But at the very least, the GOP field is providing a cache of video that Democrats are no doubt already hoarding for use in the likely event that Romney is President Obama’s opponent.
On Monday, a super PAC bankrolled by allies of Newt Gingrich said it is planning a $3.4 million media blitz in South Carolina that attacks Romney as a ruthless corporate titan who profited on the backs of hundreds of laid-off workers.
In Concord, meanwhile, Jon Huntsman turned a Romney remark about liking to be able to fire service providers who fall short into a Bain reference. "What's clear is, he likes firing people; I like creating jobs," Huntsman said.
Rick Perry also took up the anti-Bain attack at a campaign event in Anderson, S.C. "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips - whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out,'' he quipped, poking at Romney’s attempt at a feel-your-pain moment on Sunday.
If the attacks on his career at Bain Capital sound familiar, it's because the Democratic Party has been waging them for weeks, trotting out bitterly unemployed people who blame Romney for their predicament.
While the Occupy Wall Street protesters reflect a nationwide surge of anger against corporate elites, few of those folks vote in Republican primaries. "Romney gets the loot! Workers get the boot!'' chanted a couple of dozen union workers and Democratic activists outside a Romney speech on Monday morning to the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. The well-heeled audience that filtered out of the grand Radisson Inn -- presumably a heavily Republican group -- paid little attention to the mock picket line.
Romney's two-pronged response to the anti-Bain is emerging. The first approach is to pitch himself as a guy who puts on his pants one leg at a time, just like everybody else. "I know what it's like to worry whether you're gonna get fired," he told hundreds of people gathered in Rochester on Sunday. "There were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.''
(It's unclear at what point in Romney's career he was truly worried about his job security, but interviews after the speech didn't turn up anyone wondering about that. The limits of his regular-guy capacity were also evident when he launched into an explanation of his career in "venture capital.”)
On Monday morning, Romney continued to try to try to soften his image in the speech to the chamber. "I think some people imagined, by the way, that I just went directly to the top position in industry and in business,'' he said, adding that he started at "the entry level.''
The second part of Romney's response is to punch back. At Sunday's debate, he lumped Gingrich with Obama and suggested that both are hostile to free enterprise. He told the business-friendly crowd on Monday morning, "Sometimes I don't think [Obama] likes you very much. I love you!''
The Romney campaign followed up with a statement expressing sympathy for the unemployed and repeating the comeback he used in the debate.
"It's puzzling to see Speaker Gingrich and his supporters continue their attacks on free enterprise,'' Romney's spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "This is the type of criticism we've come to expect from President Obama and his left-wing allies at MoveOn.org. Unlike President Obama and Speaker Gingrich, Mitt Romney spent his career in business and knows what it will take to turn around our nation's bad economy."
At a campaign event Monday, Gingrich echoed Democratic rhetoric in arguing that his criticism of Romney was not anti-capitalist. "What you have to raise questions about is somebody goes out, invests a certain amount of money -- say $30 million. Takes out an amount, say $180 million. Six-to-one return. And then the company goes bankrupt," he said. "Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money? Or is that in fact somehow a little bit of a flawed system?"
At least one of Romney's rivals appeared to see the risks inherent in going after his record at Bain. During a town hall in Salem, Rick Santorum said he was "not taking any shots for that.'' He said, "If Gov Romney did some things that um, that were out of line…. that’s one thing. The governor was involved in the private sector, in trying to buy companies, I’m sure that most of the companies he tried to buy he wanted to make profitable and in some cases it didn’t work."
The latest Suffolk University poll suggests Romney is vulnerable but that second-place Ron Paul is unlikely to overtake him. The survey showed Romney slipping for the fifth day in a row to 33 percent, a 10-point drop. Paul is at 20 percent, Huntsman at 13 percent, Gingrich at 11 percent and Santorum at 10 percent. Twelve percent are undecided.
Rebecca Kaplan, Lindsey Boerma, Sarah B. Boxer and Sarah Huisenga contributed