It’s an unusual sight for a party that professes to champion free enterprise. Republican presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry are independently picking apart Mitt Romney’s past at the head of a private equity firm in the hope of capturing the blue-collar vote in South Carolina’s primary election next week.
The first in the South primary may be the last chance Gingrich and Perry have of stopping the former Massachusetts governor from claiming the Republican presidential nomination for November’s election.
Romney, who is perceived as a moderate, was not expected to do well in conservative South Carolina before he won the caucuses in just as conservative Iowa last week. He also emerged the victor from New Hampshire’s primary on Tuesday, an unlikely feat given the disparities in voter affiliation between the two states.
His main conservative rivals, Gingrich, Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, all plan a last stand in South Carolina before the primary race moves to much larger and more centrist Florida late in January. In recent months, they have criticized him for changing positions on abortion and for implementing a health insurance scheme in Massaschusetts that is eerily similar to President Barack Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. All to little avail. A vast majority of Republican primary voters still expects him to be the nominee.
That is not to say they like him. In South Carolina, Florida and nationwide, Romney’s popularity rarely exceeds 30 percent. Deemed a flipflopper and accused of lacking core principles, the presumptive nominee is clearly vulnerable but at least until now, his rivals haven’t managed to find the right line of attack.
Gingrich and Perry hope that they’ve finally found his weakness. The former House speaker and incumbent Texas governor have both staked their candidacies on a strong showing in South Carolina and are vehemently criticizing Romney there for making millions as a venture capitalist — or “vulture capitalist,” as Perry puts it — while bankrupting companies and laying people off.
Romney contends that in a free-market economy, people sometimes lose their jobs. Besides, he says, his company helped create or sustain tens of thousands more jobs than it destroyed. He promises to apply the same philosophy to boosting employment nationwide as president.
If there’s any indication that the attacks could hurt him, it is the rapidness with which the conservative press has spun into action to question Gingrich’s and Perry’s tactics. Right-wing talk radio hosts and Fox News presenters are openly critical of the two presidential contenders, accusing them of drawing the same distinction between “good” and “bad” capitalism that the left is trying to make.
The Wall Street Journal, an influential pro-business newspaper, similarly lambasted the “crude and damaging caricatures of modern business and capitalism” that Gingrich and Perry make, editorializing that “desperate” Republican candidates “sound like Michael Moore,” the left-wing filmmaker.
The Romney campaign has responded in kind. “We expect attacks on free enterprise from President Obama and his allies on the left,” it said in a statement, “not from so-called fiscal conservatives.”
Is it a winning strategy? The unemployment rate is nearly 10 percent in South Carolina, well above the national average. It’s also one of the poorest states in the union in terms of median household income. South Carolinians may be conservative but it remains to be seen if they’re firmly capitalist. The primary there is January 21.