Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney told voters on the eve of today’s New Hampshire primary that he likes “being able to fire people who provide services to me,” giving ammunition to rivals in the Republican presidential race criticizing him over his tenure as chief executive officer of a private equity company.
In comments to several hundred listeners at a breakfast meeting of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce yesterday, Romney said: “If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”
His off-the-cuff comments were about health-care providers. That didn’t stop his opponents from using them to intensify attacks over whether his push for profits as founder and CEO of the Boston-based private equity company Bain Capital LLC came at the expense of workers. In addition, the state’s largest television station, WMUR-TV in Manchester, carried it as a top news story.
Soon after Romney’s remarks, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. responded from Concord, New Hampshire, saying: “Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs.”
The focus on Romney’s experience included new questions raised about the former Massachusetts governor’s assertion that he’d helped create a net of 100,000 jobs while at the firm.
“Those numbers can easily be cooked,” Huntsman said at Crosby Bakery in Nashua.
The exchanges yesterday illustrated a sharp turn in tone before New Hampshire voters cast ballots in the first-in-the-nation Republican primary, as Romney’s opponents maneuvered to become his chief challenger.
Several hundred miles away in Anderson, South Carolina, Texas Governor Rick Perry talked about local businesses that were “looted” by Bain Capital, saying it was the “ultimate insult” for Romney to campaign in the state.
During a town hall meeting in Manchester, New Hampshire, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said it’s necessary to examine Romney’s record in the private sector because there’s a difference between “looting” a company and engaging in standard business practices.
“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?” Gingrich told reporters. “I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods and leaving behind a factory that should be there.”
‘A Huge Problem’
He expanded on that theme in an interview this morning on Bloomberg Television, saying, “I don’t have much respect if you rig the game so you end up walking off with all the money.” Speaking from Concord, Gingrich called on Romney to hold a news conference to discuss his time at Bain and said that “if he can’t explain it,” then “ he has a huge problem.”
Romney backers dismissed his comments about firing service providers as a minor misstatement. New Hampshire Representative Charles Bass, a Republican who supports Romney, told Bloomberg Television that the candidate’s remarks were in the context of picking another health insurer, a point that his opponents overlooked.
“He makes little mistakes, we all do,” Bass said. “These things will be taken out of context.”
Attacks From Republicans
Romney accused his rivals of doing just that, and said he was surprised to see attacks on business coming from his Republican rivals instead of President Barack Obama.
“Free enterprise will be on trial,” he told reporters in Hudson, New Hampshire. “I thought it was going to come from the president, from the Democrats on the left, but instead it’s coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others. That’s just part of the process. I’m not worried about that.”
As he has for days, Romney touted his record at Bain Capital, which he helped found.
“I’m happy to describe my experience in the private economy and the fact that if you take all of the businesses that we invested in over our many years, over 100 different businesses and collectively they net-net added over 100,000 new jobs,” he said.
In response to Bloomberg News inquiries for documentation about his assertion, Romney’s campaign cited new hires at just three companies: Staples Inc., the Sports Authority Inc. and Domino’s Pizza Inc. The data didn’t account for dozens of other companies Romney says the firm invested in during his time there.
A Bloomberg News review of several Bain deals during Romney’s tenure found that not all of Bain’s investments were beneficial for workers. Several ran into trouble, dismissing hundreds of workers, filing for bankruptcy or facing lawsuits from shareholders who said they were misled by management.
One such example was Dade Behring Inc., a Deerfield, Illinois-based medical-testing company, where Bain cut at least 1,600 jobs after taking over the company.
Bain doesn’t track the number of jobs created by its investments and won’t release comprehensive information about the deals completed during Romney’s time at the firm.
“Romney is acting no differently than politicians in office when they talk about all the jobs that government programs have created without looking at the cost side of the ledger,” said David Primo, a business administration professor at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York.
South Carolina Primary
With Romney leading in the polls in New Hampshire, the rest of the Republican field is looking ahead to the next primary on Jan. 21 in South Carolina as their best chance of stopping him from an easy march to the party’s nomination.
The attacks on Romney injected a shot of vitality into what had been a relatively sleepy campaign in New Hampshire. While the candidates have spent much of the week greeting voters and touring the state, their events have lacked the intensity of the campaign that led up to the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses.
Romney was favored by 37 percent of likely New Hampshire primary voters surveyed in a tracking poll released today by the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. U.S. Representative Ron Paul was second with 18 percent, followed by Huntsman at 16 percent, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania at 11 percent, Gingrich at 9 percent and Perry at 1 percent. The Texas governor is focusing his efforts on South Carolina.
Romney’s support has slid from 43 percent in Suffolk’s survey released Jan. 3; Paul was second with 16 percent.
Paul was forced to cut short an event at a Manchester coffee shop after it was overrun with hundreds of journalists. His campaign put out a statement apologizing for the incident, saying that “Basic safety simply must come first.”
Paul “has a lot to gain or lose here,” said Steve Duprey, who as a Republican National Committee member from New Hampshire is neutral in the race. “If there’s any state where Ron Paul could make a really powerful showing it’s in New Hampshire, where there’s a strong libertarian streak.”
Still, the only way Romney could emerge weakened from today’s balloting is if he draws less than 30 percent of the vote, said Duprey, who worked on Arizona Senator John McCain’s winning 2008 Republican primary campaign in the state.
Santorum dropped in on the lunch crowd yesterday at Mary Ann’s Diner in downtown Nashua to shake hands and make a last plea for votes.
“I was for Romney until a week ago when I saw Santorum on C-SPAN,” said Ken Hepworth, 71, a retired software engineer, as he ordered a tuna sandwich and clam chowder amid the crush of reporters following Santorum. “This fellow’s really real, and Romney -- I like everything about him, but I’m not sure it’s real.”
Neither Hepworth nor his wife, Jackie, had made a final choice on a candidate. “We’ve still got a whole 24 hours,” she said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Lerer in Nashua, New Hampshire at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com