COLUMBIA, S.C. - Two of Mitt Romney’s rivals, facing what could be their last opportunity to stop his march to the nomination, redoubled their efforts yesterday to cast him as a heartless executive, setting off alarms in conservative circles.
As the race turned to this conservative battleground state, a group supporting Newt Gingrich said that it will launch a $3.4 million ad campaign in South Carolina today that seeks to paint Romney as a “corporate raider’’ and “vulture’’ who ruined lives in the pursuit of profits. Rick Perry, staking his fortunes on South Carolina, ratcheted up his assault on Romney’s business record.
“There’s a real difference between venture capitalism and vulture capitalism,’’ he said on Fox News. “Venture capitalism, we like, vulture capitalism, no. And the fact of the matter is, he’s going to have to face up to this at some time or another, and South Carolina is as good a place to draw that line in the sand as any.’’
But Romney pointed to his decisive victory in New Hampshire on Tuesday as evidence that his rivals’ arguments have not resonated with Republican voters who typically celebrate corporate wealth creation.
“I think the evidence from New Hampshire last night, where both the speaker and Rick Perry were both in single digits, suggest this kind of attack on free enterprise is simply not gaining traction for them,’’ Romney said on Fox News.
In his victory speech Tuesday night, he warned his opponents not to help President Obama by engaging in the “bitter politics of envy.’’ Yesterday in Columbia, Governor Nikki Haley, at a rally with Romney, hammered home the message again.
“I am proud of all of our Republican candidates,’’ she said. “But we have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like Democrats against the free market.’’
The attacks have unnerved conservatives. Rush Limbaugh, the influential talk radio host, has said that Gingrich “sounds like Elizabeth Warren.’’ Sean Hannity, the Fox News host, said Perry’s rhetoric “sounds like Occupy Wall Street.’’ And Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, has called the attacks “disgusting.’’
But Perry and Gingrich appear determined to continue pressing the argument in South Carolina, where they are once again contending that Romney preyed on businesses and drained them of profits.
“I am for entrepreneurship,’’ Gingrich said in Rock Hill, according to The New York Times. “But I am also for the American people’s right to understand how the games are being played: Are they fair to the American people, or are the deals being cut on behalf of Wall Street institutions and very rich people?’’
Perry has pointed to a company in Gaffney that made photo albums and a steel plant in Georgetown that he says were closed after Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, acquired them. But in Georgetown, the chairman of the county Republican Party, Jim Jerow, said the argument is not working.
“To me, it’s like any other business: You have to do what you have to do to survive and whether you bring in an organization like Bain or whatever, that’s what companies do,’’ he said.
“These candidates are just looking for an edge, and they think it’s an edge, and I don’t think it’s an edge,’’ Jerow said. “Every company in the US and elsewhere has to do the things they have to do to keep the doors open. Unfortunately, that’s the process.’’
David Woodard, a GOP consultant and Clemson University political scientist, said he was surprised Romney’s rivals are targeting his business record, not his record as governor.
“This is a critical turning point very early in this campaign because Romney is vulnerable in South Carolina on his record as governor in Massachusetts, but he is strong here when he’s seen as a capitalist businessman,’’ Woodard said. “Seems to me like they are helping him. And they are also helping Ron Paul. If they stay on that message, I’m wondering if they’re not giving [Romney] a club to beat them up with.’’
Rick Tyler, a senior adviser to Winning our Future, the pro-Gingrich super PAC that is launching the ads against Romney, said South Carolina voters will be persuaded once they see the emotionally charged spots. The ads, financed by a $5 million donation from the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, feature blue-collar men and women charging that Romney cost them their jobs and livelihoods.
“We didn’t make our case in New Hampshire,’’ said Tyler, calling Romney a “low-flying vulture’’ who exploited companies. “We will make the case in South Carolina.’’
South Carolina’s unemployment rate is 9.9 percent, higher than the national rate of 8.6 percent. In the South, only North Carolina and Florida have higher unemployment, at 10 percent each.
Rick Santorum, the almost-winner in Iowa who is hoping to revive his campaign in South Carolina, has pointedly eschewed attacks on Romney’s record at Bain, even as he makes a direct appeal to blue-collar workers.
Yesterday, at YesterYears Restaurant in Ridgeway, outside Columbia, the former senator from Pennsylvania pumped up a standing-room-only crowd by focusing on his faith and his plan to revive the economy.
“People here in South Carolina know that for life in America to be great, we have to have a strong moral base,’’ he said.
Jon Huntsman, who arrived yesterday in South Carolina after a disappointing third-place finish in New Hampshire, defended Romney’s time at Bain and urged his fellow challengers to question Romney’s policies instead.
“Capitalism without failure isn’t capitalism,’’ Huntsman said, adding, “If you have creative destruction in capitalism, which has always been part of capitalism, it becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital.’’
Romney has highlighted Bain Capital’s successes, such as at Staples, to paint his overall record as one of job creation.
If New Hampshire voters are any guide, he may be able to make that argument again in South Carolina. Several New Hampshire voters said yesterday that they did not blame him for the firm’s failures.
Craig Moore, the safety manager at a plant that makes printers, said Romney’s private equity experience was a benefit, not a black mark.
“Romney’s time at Bain gives me no concern at all,’’ said Moore, an Ashland resident who voted for the former governor. “In fact, what he did there is exactly what he probably needs to do with the government.’’
Sarah Schweitzer of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used. Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com. Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.