HUDSON, N.H. — Mitt Romney sought to limit damage Monday from a morning comment about liking to "fire people," which he said was "taken out of context."
Romney, the former head of a private equity firm that sought to turn around troubled companies, said he was only talking about President Obama's healthcare plan and that political opponents were doing what he expected them to do with the remark.
"As you know, I was speaking about insurance companies and the need to be able to make a choice," he told reporters after his tour of the Gilchrist Metal Fabricating factory.
Romney's campaign organized the last-minute press availability to give its candidate a chance to respond to heat he was taking from his firing comment and to other criticisms the GOP front-runner has been faced with in recent days.
It was his first time taking questions from the press since before the Iowa caucuses, and comes as both Democrats and Republicans attack his business record, seeking to paint him as a corporate raider who willingly laid off workers from companies his private equity firm Bain Capital invested in.
Romney gave them fuel for their fire Monday morning.
Speaking to the Nashua Greater Chamber of Commerce, Romney said, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," adding that if he isn't getting "good service, I want to say, 'I'm going to get someone else.' "
The context surrounding Romney's remark — which came in answer to a question about what kind of healthcare system he would implement as president — is a view likely shared by many: If you don't like your healthcare company, you should be able to "fire" it and get another.
But the exact quotation is an attack ad waiting to happen, particularly since Romney has been trying to counter his image as a corporate executive.
The same is true of a comment Romney made to New Hampshire voters on Sunday, saying he knows what it's like to fear getting a "pink slip."
Democrats have seized on both. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, on a conference call Monday, said of Romney: "The only reason he knows what a pink slip looks like is that he’s handed out so many. And after his comments this morning, we know why he’s handed out so many pink slips," according to remarks released by the DNC.
But Romney expanded on his "pink slip" remark, using it as part of his new campaign speech that he came into the business world in an "entry-level position."
"Like any of us that start at the bottom of an enterprise, you wonder if you don't do so well whether you're going to be able to hang on to your job. You wonder if the enterprise gets in trouble — you wonder if you'll get laid off. That's what's happening to a lot of people around the country today. It breaks your heart to see people lose their jobs."
Jon Huntsman, who's campaigning hard leading up to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary, also seized on Romney's "fire people" remark.
He noted that, in contrast to Romney, he likes "creating jobs."
"What's clear is he likes firing people; I like creating jobs," Huntsman said in Concord.
Romney, when asked about Huntsman's remark, laughed and shrugged it off.
"You know the context of what I was saying in that we all like to be able to choose our own insurance company," he said. "I understand that in politics people are going to grasp at anything, take it out of context, make it something it's not."
He then refused to fire back.
"I gonna be an adult about it and recognize it goes with the territory," he told reporters.
He wasn't quite as nonchalant about Newt Gingrich, who has been pounding on the former governor in the debates and in campaign appearances.
When asked about a pro-Gingrich group that is spending millions on ads against Romney in South Carolina, targeting his record at Bain Capital, Romney didn't hold back.
"Gee, I thought he apologized for going after my record at Bain. Wasn't that just a few weeks ago? So he apologized for that, and now he's going to make it his centerpiece?" Romney said. "Free enterprise will be on trial. I thought it was going to come from the president and Democrats from the left, but instead it's going to come from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others. That's just part of the process. I'm not worried about that. I've got broad shoulders."
Romney spent about an hour at the factory in Hudson, N.H., getting a tour from its owner and taking questions from workers. He was accompanied by former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteLewandowski saw no evidence of voter fraud in New Hampshire NH governor 'not aware’ of major voter fraud Former NH AG: 'Allegations of voter fraud in NH are baseless' MORE (R-N.H.) and his family.
His next stop is a rally with supporters in Bedford, N.H.
His main concern, he said in his five-minute press conference, is Tuesday's vote, particularly given the eight-vote margin by which he won in last week's Iowa caucuses.
"Right now, what I'm worried about is winning in New Hampshire and hopefully having a margin larger than in Iowa. I can't handle another night like that," he said.