As voters head to the polls today in the New Hampshire primary, frontrunner Mitt Romney is hoping to wrest a potentially pivotal victory from his rivals, who have waged a fierce assault on the centerpiece of his campaign -- his business record -- and put the typically unflappable front-runner on the defensive.
A day after Romney, hoping to show empathy with workaday Americans, said he knew what it was like to fear a pink slip, the former Massachusetts governor made another unscripted remark yesterday — “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me’’ — that fueled his rivals’ efforts to paint him as wealthy and out of touch.
“Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs,’’ responded Jon Huntsman. “It may be that he’s slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that’s a dangerous place for somebody to be.’’
Rick Santorum said, “I don’t like to fire people. I would rather work with people.’’
And Rick Perry released an audio clip of Romney’s remark to supporters as a ring tone and put a statement on his website calling Romney a “buyout tycoon who executed takeovers, bankrupted businesses, and sent jobs overseas while killing American jobs!’’
But the attacks may be too late to derail Romney in New Hampshire, where he has spent years building a formidable base of support and where he holds a sizable, though narrowing, lead. A Suffolk University/7News tracking poll yesterday showed him ahead with 33 percent support, down from 43 percent in the same poll five days ago.
If one of Romney’s rivals can pull off the ultimate surprise — a come-from-behind victory in a state considered Romney’s firewall — it would dramatically reshape the race. Even a close second-place finish would embolden a rival as the race heads into South Carolina, which votes on Jan. 21, and Florida, which votes on Jan. 31.
A Romney victory today would make him the first nonincumbent Republican to win both the Iowa caucuses and the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire since those states started their traditions as early barometers of the nomination process. It would also be vindication for a candidate who lost New Hampshire to John McCain four years ago but now has the backing of most of the state’s GOP establishment, as well as an army of supporters who will be driving voters to the polls.
But just as Romney was trying to project confidence and steadiness yesterday, he inadvertently handed his challengers some last-minute ammunition as he was talking about giving consumers more options in the health insurance market.
“If you don’t like what they do, you can fire them,’’ Romney told the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.’’ Romney later said his rivals took the comment out of context.
The blowback added to an ongoing onslaught against his business record from Newt Gingrich. Shredding a pledge he made in Iowa to run a positive campaign, the former House speaker yesterday accused Romney of slashing jobs in the pursuit of profits as chief executive of Bain Capital, the Boston equity investment firm that Romney led in the 1990s.
“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 somehow a little bit of a flawed system?’’ he said. “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.’’
Romney pushed back, saying he expected Democrats — not fellow Republicans — to criticize his business record. Romney has pointed to Bain Capital’s successes, such as investing in Staples, arguing that his overall record there was one of job creation. But Bain’s history of slashing jobs at some firms has shadowed him since his 1994 run for US Senate.
“Free enterprise will be on trial,’’ Romney told reporters. “I thought it was going to come from the Democrats and the left. But instead it’s coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others. You know, that’s just part of the process. I have broad shoulders and I’m happy to describe my experience in the private economy.’’
Asked about his remark about firing people, Romney said he was trying to make a point about the value of free-market health insurance.
“I don’t want to live in a world where we have Obamacare telling us which insurance we have to have, which doctor we can have, which hospital we go to,’’ Romney said. “I believe in the setting as I described this morning where people are able to choose their own doctor, choose their own insurance company. If they don’t like their insurance company or their provider, they can get rid of it.’’
The son of an auto executive and Michigan governor, Romney also sought to counter the perception that he began his business career at the top.
“I think some people imagine, by the way, that I just went directly to the top positions in industry and business, that I started off as vice chairman or chairman or CEO of Bain,’’ he said. “You probably know that I started off actually at the entry level, coming out of graduate school.’’
Democrats have been hammering Romney’s business record in anticipation of a potential general election matchup between him and President Obama. But the criticism from Republicans who typically venerate the free market adds a new dimension. A super PAC supporting Gingrich plans a multimillion-dollar advertising assault in South Carolina that will focus on Romney’s time at Bain. A pro-Romney super PAC is planning its own ad barrage in the state.
Even as Gingrich assailed Romney’s record, however, his campaign acknowledged that Gingrich himself served on the advisory board of Forstmann Little, a private equity firm that also engaged in leveraged buyouts.
Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said Gingrich served on the board from 1999 to 2001 and was paid, but Hammond did not know the amount. Gingrich’s ties to Forstmann Little were first reported by The New York Times.
“It was an advisory board that met infrequently, as little as once a year, and Mitt ran Bain, so this would be a lot different,’’ Hammond said.
The Suffolk tracking poll that showed Romney in the lead in New Hampshire indicated that Ron Paul was second, at 20 percent, followed by Huntsman at 13 percent; Gingrich at 11 percent; Santorum at 10 percent; Buddy Roemer, a former Louisiana governor, at 2 percent; and Perry at 1 percent. A WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll yesterday showed Romney with a wider lead, at 41 percent, followed by Paul at 17 percent, Huntsman and Santorum at 11 percent each, and Gingrich at 8 percent.
Huntsman, in particular, needs a strong showing to keep his campaign afloat. The former governor of Utah has campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire, seeking the support of establishment Republicans and independents, both crucial blocs for Romney. He has been drawing larger crowds to his events.
In his final rally before voters stream to the polls, Romney attracted more supporters than any of his rivals, drawing nearly 1,500 people.
“We’ve been coming to New Hampshire for 40 years,’’ he said at McKelvie Intermediate School, wistfully recollecting the many summer and winter vacations his family took here.
“We love the state. We love the Yankee spirit of Live Free or Die.’’
Globe staff reporters Bobby Caina Calvan and Sarah Schweitzer and Globe correspondent Shira Schoenberg contributed to this report. Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.