Mitt Romney launched a two-front ad campaign yesterday, defending himself from attacks that paint him as a “vulture capitalist’’ and raise questions about the sincerity of his antiabortion stance.
The twin response is the clearest sign yet that he is taking the attacks seriously and that his defense has not been aggressive enough. Romney is ahead in the polls in South Carolina, but several surveys suggest Newt Gingrich, who has led the assault on Romney, is inching closer.
The attacks by Gingrich and Rick Perry on Romney’s record at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he led from 1984 to 1998, have dominated the race the last several days, putting Romney on the defensive over the crucial issue of job creation.
Romney has denounced the attacks as assaults on free enterprise, adding that he expected Democrats, not fellow Republicans, to assail his record at Bain. The attacks have also outraged some conservatives, who have accused Gingrich and Perry of echoing the language of Occupy Wall Street.
President Obama’s reelection team happily fanned the flames yesterday, accusing Romney of profiting while his firm closed plants, cut jobs, and slashed wages and benefits.
“ ‘Free enterprise’ isn’t running for president, Mitt Romney is,’’ Stephanie Cutter, an Obama adviser, wrote in a memo. “And voters deserve straight answers about his record.’’
With his new 30-second television ad, released in South Carolina, Romney seeks to control any damage caused by the attacks by highlighting companies that prospered under Bain Capital.
“Mitt Romney helped create and ran a company that invested in struggling businesses, grew new ones, and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs,’’ the announcer says as the names Staples, Sports Authority, and Steel Dynamics flash across the screen. “Those are the facts.’’
“We expected the Obama administration to put free markets on trial, but as the Wall Street Journal said, ‘Mr. Romney’s GOP opponents are embarrassing themselves by taking the Obama line.’ ’’
Moving also to defend himself on issues important to South Carolina’s evangelical voters, Romney released a 30-second radio ad that responds to Gingrich’s accusations that Romney was a “proabortion’’ governor of Massachusetts.
The radio ad quotes Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a conservative Tea Party leader, saying in 2007 that Romney “feels passionately that the value of human life begins at conception.’’
“Today, Christian conservatives are supporting Mitt Romney because he shares their values: the sanctity of life, the sacredness of marriage, and the importance of the family,’’ the announcer states.
The ad also features Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard Law School professor and founder of Women Affirming Life, and James Bopp Jr., general counsel for the National Right to Life Committee. Despite his appearance in the ad, DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008, has not endorsed a candidate in this election.
Romney was a supporter of abortion rights during his 1994 US Senate campaign and vowed during the 2002 governor’s race not to change Massachusetts’ abortion laws. But he switched positions in 2005, when he wrote an opinion piece for the Globe, declaring, “I am prolife.’’
Gingrich, wary of conservative blowback from his Bain attacks, sought to distance himself yesterday from ads produced by an independent group supporting his candidacy. He called on the super PAC to take down or edit the ads, which describe Romney as a “corporate raider’’ who was “more ruthless than Wall Street.’’ Fact-checkers have said the ads are filled with falsehoods.
Officials from the group, Winning Our Future, did not respond to requests for comment.
“Furthermore, I am once again calling on Governor Romney to issue a similar call for the super PAC supporting him to edit or remove its ads which have been shown to contain gross inaccuracies, something the governor has thus far refused to do,’’ Gingrich said.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, responded by pointing out that Romney has said he has no control over the ads from his super PAC, which is run by Romney’s former aides and allies.
“Speaker Gingrich is just distracting from the fact that the movie he has been touting for days - including how well sourced it is - turned out to be full of blatant falsehoods and fabrications,’’ Saul said.
The ads are based on a 28-minute movie, “King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town,’’ which was produced by Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist and former congressional aide from Alexandria, Va.
Bennett said he was inspired to make the movie after obtaining several “opposition research’’ books from Romney’s rivals in the 2008 campaign.
“I wanted our party to think about what the Obama campaign was going to do to him and make sure we were not getting surprised by this in October,’’ Bennett said.
He financed the movie, he said, with $40,000 of his own money and commissioned as its director Jason Killian Meath, an advertising executive who worked for Romney in 2008 and has also worked with Romney’s top media strategist, Stuart Stevens.
The movie, which is similar to an ad that Edward M. Kennedy released in his 1994 race against Romney, shows workers complaining that Romney slashed their jobs and devastated their communities.
“I feel that is the man that destroyed us,’’ one woman says.
A Perry supporter, Bennett helped launch a super PAC backing the Texas governor but insisted he did not produce “King of Bain’’ for that group. He said he was not sure who was going to distribute it until last week, when he sold it to Winning Our Future for $40,000, the cost of production.
Bennett said he is not persuaded by Republican arguments that he is helping Obama.
“If Romney has a good answer to these charges, he will be a much stronger candidate, and I’d rather him and our party face this issue in January of 2012 than in October of 2012,’’ he said.
Asked about the response he has gotten from fellow Republicans, Bennett said: “I haven’t gotten any death threats.’’
Whether the ads will resonate with Republicans who traditionally welcome corporate wealth creation remains an open question.
Some are clearly appalled.
“All we’re doing is hurting the party,’’ said Robin Firestone, an undecided voter who was at a Romney rally in Hilton Head yesterday.
“It’s a stocking stuffer for Obama,’’ said her husband, Jack.
Eric Davis, chairman of the Richland County Republican Party, agreed.
“We’re, in general, a very probusiness state, so that kind of argument, down here, I don’t think is going to fly,’’ he said. “The ads sound like the people who made them don’t know anything about how corporations work.’’
Not every Republican has been so quick to dismiss the ads.
Rhonda Jones, a 50-year-old stay-at-home mother who showed up yesterday to see Perry at the Squat ’N’ Gobble cafe in Bluffton, said Romney’s record at Bain “is what concerns me.’’ She said she will vote for Perry or Gingrich.
“Romney is a nonstarter. . . . He was money-hungry himself,’’ Jones said, adding that she knows several unemployed people. “He wasn’t looking out for people.’’Bobby Caina Calvan of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was also used. Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.