Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and South Carolina Gov.… (Joe Raedle / Getty Images )
Reporting from Lexington, S.C. — Jim Buchanan winced as he explained why Mitt Romney's business career made him uneasy.
"I think he [as president] would be more, basically, out for himself — and not for us," said Buchanan, a regional manager here for Zaxby's fast-food chicken.
Buchanan, who was filling a prescription at Wal-Mart, suspects there is some truth to TV ads and news reports about South Carolina job losses stemming from buyout deals that spawned millions of dollars in fees for Bain Capital, an investment firm once led by Romney.
"Obviously, he's made a lot of money," said Buchanan, who plans to vote Saturday for Newt Gingrich in South Carolina's Republican primary. "And there's been maybe a little bit of foul play. I don't know that to be a fact. A lot of times, for people to get into a position that he's in, they've had to step on some toes along the way, maybe bend some rules."
Conversations with Buchanan and more than a dozen others in this overwhelmingly Republican suburb of Columbia, S.C., shed light on why recent attacks on Romney's record at Bain foreshadow potential trouble for him if he were to become the party's nominee for president.
Whether the issue will damage Romney in the primary is uncertain. Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have made it a central line of attack against the former Massachusetts governor. Romney, in turn, has accused them of joining President Obama in dividing Americans with "the bitter politics of envy."
But it is an alarming sign for Romney that the issue is resonating at all with culturally conservative whites, a core constituency for whoever becomes Obama's Republican challenger. They dominate elections here in rapidly growing Lexington County, a bellwether for GOP primaries in South Carolina.
If some Republicans in Lexington County are put off by the cold profit calculus of Romney's corporate buyout work, how will it play among more independent-minded swing voters in Ohio, Florida and other closely divided states that will decide the November election?
Deama Fulmer, a 52-year-old Republican, lost her job as a computer program analyst as the economy spiraled downward in 2008. She lives 20 miles from the town of Lexington in Batesburg-Leesville, on the county's western edge. Torn between Perry and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, Fulmer has ruled out Romney.
"He's got all these big-money backers — the Wall Street bankers and that kind of thing," she said as she waited in a pickup for her husband to get a haircut at Roger's Barber Shop on traffic-clogged Columbia Avenue in Lexington. "I'm not really pleased with the way the country's been run by big corporations and PACs. They don't seem to really care about regular people."
That is exactly the image of Romney that Gingrich and Perry have promoted by campaigning in South Carolina towns where workers at manufacturing plants were laid off after Bain takeover deals.
And while Paul has avoided such attacks, a "super PAC" that backs the libertarian congressman has been running a TV ad in South Carolina that sends essentially the same message about Romney.
The ad, focused on the 2008 bank bailouts, shows Obama, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Romney and a cigar-smoking banker with $100 bills bursting out of his shirt pocket. "They took your money and gave it to their Wall Street friends," an announcer says. Paul is shown wagging his finger at Romney as the narrator calls the congressman "fearless in the face of corruption."
Romney, whose Bain career has been fodder for opponents since he tried unsuccessfully to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1994, faced another variation of the attack in the 2008 presidential race: Republican rival Mike Huckabee compared him to "the guy who laid you off."
Among many Republicans, the attacks carry no weight. Jonathan Speers, for one, is leaning toward Romney, based largely on his business record. "He seems like he's got a level head on his shoulders," said Speers, 27, the manager of Frank's Car Wash in Lexington.
"Romney was just doing business," said Walter Early, 56, a Lexington insurance broker who backs Rick Santorum but sees Romney as "a very decent guy."
"That's the way business is done in this country. It's pure capitalism," he said.
Many of those who are rejecting Romney in the primary still strongly prefer him over Obama — among them, Mike Boozer, 67, a Paul supporter who looks askance at Romney's business record.
"He talks about creating all those jobs, but he fired as many as he hired, it looks like," said Boozer, a retired truck driver running an errand at Home Depot in Lexington.
Still, the qualms voiced by Boozer and computer system manager Leigh Anne Poole, 32, speak to the challenge Romney would face fighting accusations in the fall that he made millions by "strip-mining companies," as Obama's chief campaign strategist, David Axelrod, put it Sunday on CNN.
"I feel like he's a little too 'big corporation,' " Poole said on her way in to Books-a-Million with her 5-year-old daughter, Samantha, clutching her leg. "Down here, we're more into the smaller guys than the bigger guys."