Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at a metal fabricating… (Justin Lane, European Pressphoto…)
Reporting from Nashua, N.H., and Anderson, S.C. — Jostling in a last heated day before the New Hampshire primary, Republicans ganged up on front-runner Mitt Romney, accusing him of a callous cluelessness about the economic anxiety facing many Americans.
The former Massachusetts governor, appearing at a Nashua Chamber of Commerce breakfast, gave fuel to his opponents with a comment that included the phrase "I like being able to fire people." It became instant fodder for critics eager to tear him down ahead of Tuesday's primary and, even more, the Jan. 21 balloting in South Carolina, which looks to be much closer.
Later in the day, Romney protested that he was talking about health insurance. The full quote was: "I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don't like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know, 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.' "
But the flap played into a theme his Republican rivals are trying to develop, namely that Romney got rich at Bain Capital — the venture firm he co-founded — by breaking up companies and laying off workers. He says his efforts built successful enterprises and created a net gain of jobs.
Campaigning in Concord, the state capital, Jon Huntsman Jr. said the statement showed how out of touch Romney was "with the economic reality playing out in American right now."
"That's a dangerous place for somebody to be," the former Utah governor said.
By nightfall, the Democratic National Committee had rushed out a video spot featuring the remark, which appeared on YouTube under the provocative headline: "Mitt Romney Likes Firing People."
Hours later, Romney sought to clarify the context of his remark at a news conference in Hudson, N.H.
"Things can always be taken out of context, and I understand that that's what the Obama people will do," said Romney, who came under fire earlier in the campaign for taking the president's words out of context in a TV ad on the economy.
When a reporter pointed out that fellow Republicans were among those attacking Romney, he shrugged it off. "I'm not worried about that," he said. "I've got broad shoulders and I'm happy to describe my experience in the private economy."
Barring a stunning reversal, Romney is expected to easily win New Hampshire's primary. That has turned the contest into a wide-open fight for second place among Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Huntsman (who has placed an all-or-nothing bet on the state), former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the second-place finisher in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum.
For much of the campaign, those candidates have trained their fire on one another, all but sparing Romney. But in the last few days, the dynamic has shifted and rivals have increasingly turned on the front-runner, seizing on his business background to try to make a case — Romney exploited working people for personal gain — that Democrats will happily reprise if they face Romney in the fall.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry weighed in Monday from South Carolina, where he campaigned after conceding New Hampshire. He seized on a comment by Romney on Sunday that he knew what it was like to worry about a pink slip.
"I have no doubt that Mitt Romney worried about pink slips," Perry told the crowd at a diner in Anderson. "With as many jobs as Bain Capital killed, I'm sure he was worried he would run out of them.
"There's nothing wrong with being successful and making money. That's the American dream. But there is something inherently wrong with getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else."
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Gingrich demanded that Romney answer "legitimate questions" about how he made his millions and who may have suffered as a result. Gingrich accused Romney of building his fortune through a "flawed system" in which "a handful of rich people [can] manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money" by "looting a company and leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods."
"I think it's a legitimate question about exactly what happened: Where did the money go? Who got the money? What happened to the people involved? And to what extent is that his responsibility?" Gingrich told reporters in Manchester, N.H.
Santorum took another tack, suggesting that Romney lacked the boldness and conservative credentials needed to excite voters and, ultimately, put the White House in Republican hands.