By Justin Sink - 01/12/12 01:55 AM EST
Criticism of Mitt Romney’s years in private investment is being hit by a fierce backlash from Republicans worried the attacks could damage their probable candidate in the general-election battle against President Obama.
The scorching assault on Romney from former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Texas Gov. Rick Perry are meant to resonate in South Carolina, the next state on the GOP calendar and a place hit hard by recession.
A $3.4 million ad buy funded by a pro-Gingrich political action committee in South Carolina derides Romney as a “predatory corporate raider” and “scavenger.”
Rick Perry piled on, calling attempts by Romney to sympathize with voters worried about losing their jobs “the ultimate insult.”
“Now, I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips — whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out because his company Bain Capital, with all the jobs that they killed, I’m sure he was worried that he’d run out of pink slips,” Perry said while campaigning in South Carolina.
Many Republicans fear the pair will fail to stop Romney’s nomination — all the while handing Obama a potent weapon.
Rep. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) warned that Republican candidates “ought not cannibalize” themselves and denounced a commercial funded by a pro-Gingrich political action committee that has been critical of Romney’s record at Bain.
“The winner of the 28-minute commercial is Barack Obama,” Scott told Fox News on Wednesday. He warned that the attacks had the potential to inflict serious and lasting damage to Romney’s eventual candidacy.
Many Republicans question why Gingrich is serving up Democratic talking points against Romney that are sure to be used by the president’s campaign strategists, who increasingly have sought to tie their candidate, at least in spirit, to the political winds of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
“David Axelrod has already telegraphed his punch; they’re going to try to depict Romney as a corporate raider and a scavenger and a wealthy Wall Streeter out of touch with the common man,” said GOP consultant Roger Stone, referring to Obama’s chief political strategist. “All I think we’re doing is helping them by doing that earlier in the process.”
Rush Limbaugh, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), Michelle Malkin and the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal are among the other figures on the right to have lambasted the attacks as going too far.
Gingrich has criticized Romney for negative ads run by outside groups that proved devastating to the former Speaker’s campaign. Gingrich was once the front-runner for the GOP nomination, but the relentless attacks brought his poll numbers down, and he finished a disappointing fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire.
At Sunday’s GOP debate, Gingrich asked Romney to disavow his own ads.
Now Gingrich could face the same question at GOP debates next week.
On Wednesday, his campaign said it would not walk back criticism of Romney and Bain, which he said was fair game.
“It was Gov. Romney’s decision to base his candidacy, in large part, on his background as a portfolio manager,” Gingrich press secretary R.C. Hammond said in a press statement. “Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask questions about whether he is accurately presenting how he conducted himself during that career.”
Published reports “contradict” Romney’s claims that “it was his goal at Bain Capital to make companies more successful,” Hammond said.
“In fact, there were cases where Bain Capital made huge profits and left companies bankrupt. Further reports have cast doubt on Gov. Romney’s claim that he was responsible for 100,000 jobs being created thanks to this work at Bain Capital,” the statement said.
“Instead of accepting the responsibility to answer questions about his business background, the Romney campaign is throwing up a smokescreen about an attack on capitalism,” Hammond said. “That’s just more pious baloney from Mitt Romney and his campaign.”
After South Carolina’s primary on Jan. 21, Republicans will move to Florida’s primary on Jan. 31. Stone argued that Gingrich’s attacks could do real damage against Romney in Florida, a critical swing state in the general election. An Obama victory in Florida would make it very difficult for his GOP rival to win the White House.
“This is far more lethal among casual voters who don’t make the connection between capitalism and growth,” Stone said. “These ads are airing in South Carolina and then conceivably Florida, and real damage could be done to Romney in Florida, a must-carry state for Republicans.”
Supporters of Gingrich have defended his line of attack.
Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a Gingrich backer who supported Romney in the 2008 presidential primary, dismissed criticism that the attacks on Bain would boost Democrats, saying, “I don’t buy that argument.
“It’s still intramural,” he said in an interview with The Hill. “It makes [Romney] a better candidate to answer those charges now.”
He added that it was important for Republican candidates to speak to the “anti-Wall Street, anti-insider streak in our party.”
Romney said the criticisms fell flat, as evidenced by his substantial win in the New Hampshire primary.
“They tried it very hard, ran ads here, were up and down the state campaigning, and people in the state here said, ‘Look, we want a guy who spent some time in the private sector, not someone who spent their entire life in Washington.’ So I think it’s working for my benefit,” he told ABC.
But while campaigning Monday in New Hampshire, Romney also said that Gingrich was putting “free enterprise 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’ve got broad shoulders.”
— Russell Berman contributed.