Republicans trying to gain ground in the party’s 2012 presidential race are turning on the field’s leading candidates, following months in which the contenders mostly exchanged pleasantries and limited their attacks to President Barack Obama.
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China, was the latest Republican to take a more aggressive stance as his campaign issued statements yesterday critical of the economic record of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner in national polls.
Former Governor Tim Pawlenty started the campaign’s new phase over the weekend when he questioned the qualifications of U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann. The two Minnesotans have a similar strategy keyed to doing well in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa, and so far polls show Bachmann well ahead of Pawlenty.
The attacks signal the end of the “group picture” stage of the campaign, said Frank Donatelli, chairman of the national Republican advocacy group GOPAC and a top adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid. “The only way you win primaries is by being the first choice of voters, so that means intensity and trying to draw differences with your opponent,” he said.
Huntsman’s targeting of Romney echoed criticisms Obama’s campaign already has raised about employment growth in Massachusetts during Romney’s 2003-2007 tenure as its chief executive.
“You know your job creation record is bad when you brag about going from last to 47th” among the 50 states, Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said in the statement. “In order to turn the economy around the GOP needs a candidate with a track record of job creation, not one with a failed record similar to President Obama’s.”
Another statement posted on Huntsman’s website said that, while Massachusetts was ranked nearly last in job creation during Romney’s term, Utah ranked first in the nation during Huntsman’s 2005-2009 stint in office.
“It’s safe to assume Mitt Romney will continue to run away from his record,” the website said.
Massachusetts’s 1.3 percent job-growth rate ranked it ahead of only Michigan, Louisiana and Ohio during Romney’s term, according to data from the Labor Department’s monthly payroll survey. During Huntsman’s time as Utah’s governor, employment in the state grew 5.9 percent.
Utah’s unemployment rate, though, also grew during Huntsman’s term to 7.4 percent from 4.5 percent. The rate in Massachusetts fell to 4.7 percent from 5.6 percent during Romney’s time in office.
Huntsman was just beginning a second term in 2009 when he stepped down to become Obama’s ambassador to China, a post he quit earlier this year to run against the president.
Huntsman’s campaign strategy hinges on a strong showing in New Hampshire, which follows Iowa in the nomination contest with the nation’s first primary. He received just 2 percent in the latest Granite State Poll of Republican-leaning voters in New Hampshire; Romney led the survey with 35 percent.
The poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, was taken from June 21 through July 1 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points.
Pawlenty is training his fire on Bachmann as the Aug. 13 Iowa Straw Poll approaches. While Romney and Huntsman aren’t making efforts to compete in the straw poll, which doubles as a fundraising event for the state Republican Party, the Pawlenty and Bachmann campaigns are treating it as an early test of their strength in Iowa.
Pawlenty, who received 6 percent support in an Iowa Poll sponsored by the Des Moines Register last month of likely Republican caucus participants, needs a strong showing in the straw poll to keep his candidacy viable, leading Iowa Republicans have said. At 22 percent, Bachmann was in a statistical tie in the poll with Romney.
During a July 10 appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, Pawlenty criticized Bachmann by saying she hasn’t accomplished anything as a House member since first being elected in 2006.
“Her record of accomplishment in Congress is non-existent,” he said.
“We’re not looking for folks who just have speech capabilities,” said Pawlenty, who was Minnesota’s governor from 2003 to early this year. “We’re looking for people who can lead a large enterprise in a public setting and drive it to conclusion. I’ve done that; she hasn’t.”
Bachmann, in an e-mailed statement, responded, “I am proud of my record of fighting with resolve, and without apology, for our free markets, for sane fiscal policies and in opposition to the advancement of the big-government left.”