CONCORD, N.H. - Mitt Romney has long hailed his background as a successful business executive to convince Republican primary voters that he is best suited to lead the country’s economic turnaround.
But now an increasing number of Romney’s competitors - and an independent group that backs Newt Gingrich - are trying to turn this perceived strength into a weakness.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, referring to Romney’s work running Bain Capital, which specialized in leveraged buyouts of existing companies, said “Private equity, like Bain, traditionally has not been famous for expanding the economic base - manufacturing has been.’’
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum mocked Romney’s executive experience yesterday saying, “The leader in this race fashions himself as, ‘I’m a CEO, I’m a manager.’ Washington doesn’t need a manager.’’
And, in what could be the most significant move yet, a super PAC that backs former House speaker Gingrich announced just before last night’s debate that it planned to spend $1 million to promote a 27-minute documentary excoriating Romney’s work at Bain.
Gingrich himself previously attacked Romney for the money “earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees’’ and then recanted, but the effort by the Winning Our Future super PAC doubles down on that charge. As ominous-sounding music plays in the background, a narrator alleges that Romney’s practices wound up “often killing jobs for big financial rewards.’’
Rick Tyler, who for years was Gingrich’s spokesman and now is senior adviser to Winning Our Future, said in a telephone interview that the point of the film is that “Romney cloaks himself in free enterprise but what he was engaged in at Bain Capital was not free enterprise at all. It was predatory paper-shuffling. It would target companies and their assets . . . bankrupting companies and causing thousands of employees to lose their jobs.”
Tyler sent the Globe an advance copy of the video, which shows a title, “When Mitt Romney Came To Town’’ splashed across an image of what appears to be a closed factory.
Tyler said that an advertising campaign based on the documentary will begin airing as soon as tomorrow in South Carolina in an effort to undercut Romney, who is leading in recent polls in that state. That primary will be held Jan. 21.
The super PAC is allowed to collect unlimited donations as long as it does not coordinate with a presidential campaign. Gingrich has complained that a pro-Romney super PAC attacked him unfairly during the Iowa caucuses, where Gingrich came in fourth place after leading the polls in early December.
Thus, the campaign by the pro-Gingrich super PAC in South Carolina could be perceived as payback. While it might not help Gingrich, it could indirectly help other challengers if it weakens Romney.
It has long been expected that attacks on Romney’s Bain record would come from Democrats in a general election if Romney becomes the Republican nominee, but the sharp rhetoric by fellow Republicans against Romney for his business background demonstrates how the GOP competitors are probing the front-runner for weaknesses.
Previously, Romney’s opponents have blasted his onetime support for abortion rights, a social issue that was more important in Iowa than in New Hampshire, and criticized Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts, where he implemented an individual mandate for health insurance.
Romney has responded by trying to stay on a carefully honed message that often returns to his business experience.
“I’ll go to work to make America a job-creating machine again,’’ he said at a Manchester rally last week. “I know how that’s done.’’
As the head of Bain Capital from 1984 to 1999 (with a leave of absence for his unsuccessful 1994 US Senate bid), Romney ran an investment company that initially focused on supplying venture capital to new companies, such as Staples Inc.
He eventually put most of Bain’s emphasis on leveraged buyouts. Such deals often involved saddling the buyout target with debt, restructuring the company, sometimes laying off workers, and reselling the firm at a profit, all while getting management fees. Some of the buyouts resulted in stronger companies, while others ended in bankruptcy - in some cases due to the debt incurred during the buyout.
As has happened in all four of his bids for political office, Romney has been trailed by workers who lost jobs as a result, including those from a paper company called Ampad and a Kansas City, Mo., steel mill.
A liberal group, Moveon.org, has been running an ad in New Hampshire featuring a worker from the steel mill, Danny Box, who says of Romney and Bain Capital: “We lost our jobs; they made millions.’’
In the case of GST Steel, Bain doubled its $24 million investment, but the company eventually filed for bankruptcy, at the cost of 750 jobs.
In prior campaigns, Romney has tried to be careful in claiming credit for creating jobs, given that some were also lost. For example, in his 1994 campaign, Romney said, “I’m always very careful to use the words ‘help create.’ Bain Capital, or Mitt Romney, ‘helped create’ over 10,000 jobs. I don’t take credit for the jobs at Staples. I helped create the jobs at Staples.’’
But during this campaign, Romney has said that he had helped create a “net, net’’ of tens of thousands of jobs, and his campaign said in an e-mail to the Globe that Bain “created’’ more than 100,000 jobs and attributed 89,000 of those jobs to Staples; critics have said most of those jobs came after Bain had cashed in its Staples investment.
The Romney campaign and Bain have not provided a detailed tally of how many jobs were gained and lost in the roughly 100 companies in which the firm invested.
The Romney campaign sought last night to counter the documentary’s claim before it was released.
“It’s puzzling to see Speaker Gingrich and his supporters continue their attacks on free enterprise. This is the type of criticism we’ve come to expect from President Obama and his left-wing allies,’’ said Romney’s spokeswoman, Andrea Saul.
John Carroll, a Boston University communications professor who monitors the campaign, said he has been surprised that most of Romney’s competitors have refrained until recently from attacking Romney’s business record.
He said that Republicans would “be on to something to say that Bain Capital is the wrong kind of business and wrong kind of model if you are looking for someone to be commander in chief and to be president.’’
Carroll said Romney’s claim of creating 89,000 jobs at Staples “is silly. That is entirely inflated. The vast majority of Staples growth happened after Romney was gone. . . . It is incumbent upon the candidates telling the public that.’’
But Staples founder Thomas Stemberg has said claiming credit for all of the Staples jobs is fair because the company wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without the initial investment from Bain and others.