COLUMBIA, S.C. — After enduring days of blistering attacks from his rivals, Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his record at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that sometimes laid off workers while attempting to turn companies around.
Speaking to reporters after a campaign event in Greer, S.C., Romney responded to attacks by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who've portrayed the former Massachusetts governor as a cold-hearted venture capitalist who put profits ahead of people during his tenure at Bain.
"I think anytime a job is lost it's a tragedy," Romney said.
"There are a number of businesses that we helped start, which collectively, you just look at their websites, added well over 100,000 jobs," Romney said. He named Staples, Bright Horizons Children's Centers, Sports Authority and Steel Dynamics as examples.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sun News
"And then the press has also reported on businesses that lost employment, and that was a few thousand jobs that were lost. In each case where there was job loss, there was an effort on the part of the management team to try and preserve the business and to have a brighter future," Romney said, adding: "Sometimes you're successful at that and sometimes you're not."
Perry continued to press the Bain issue Thursday despite concerns from key Republicans — including influential South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint — that going after a fellow Republican on matters of free-market capitalism was unseemly and could provide President Barack Obama ammunition for the general election.
"It is important for the Republican Party to represent the party that creates jobs, not the party that goes out and identifies companies that they think they can quickly make a buck on and either strip them of their assets and then they go bankrupt or flip them quickly," Perry said in an exclusive interview with The State newspaper of Columbia, S.C. "It's a legitimate issue to put out in front of the people. ... We better get this (fleshed) out in January, rather than September," during the general election.
Perry's insistence on attacking Romney for laying off workers at a South Carolina company has cost him the support of a key fundraiser. Barry Wynn, DeMint's treasurer, said Thursday that he was switching his support from Perry to Romney.
"I've spent my whole life, just about, fighting for principles, the main one of which is ... our belief in free-market capitalism," Wynn said. "I just don't think you can be on both sides of that issue."
Perry brushed off Wynn's change of heart, saying, "If somebody wants to cut and run, that's their call." He added that he'll keep criticizing Romney's tenure at Bain.
Gingrich, for his part, did not bring up Bain in campaign appearances, although a 28-minute TV ad sponsored by a so-called super PAC that supports his campaign continued to run, savaging Romney's tenure at the company. Instead, he extolled the virtues of home ownership and spoke about improving South Carolina's economy at a rally at the statehouse steps in Columbia.
"One of my happiest moments as president would be to come to Charleston to see the first container ship carrying South Carolina manufactured goods to China," he said at the rally.
Campaigning in a Blythewood, S.C., restaurant, Perry also touched on South Carolina's photo-identification law for voters being ruled discriminatory by the Justice Department and noted that a federal judge blocked portions of the state's immigration law, including a provision that would have allowed state and local police to check for immigration documents.
"In South Carolina, you all aren't just under assault, you all are in a war," he said. "You're in a war with the federal government. When they walk in with their Department of Justice and they are going to take you to task so to speak, sue your state for a voter identification law that your legislature says should be allowed — this right to vote should be protected."
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division concluded that South Carolina's voter photo-ID law is discriminatory because the state's minorities are "20 percent more likely to lack DMV-issued ID than white registered voters, and thus to be effectively disenfranchised."
South Carolina is one of 13 states — including Perry's Texas — that have approved new voting laws that proponents say are needed to protect against voter fraud. Opponents say the laws are thinly veiled Republican efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, the elderly and the young in 2012.
"I have been talking for several years now about what happened to close down the effects of Reconstruction in another century," said House Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, who briefly attended the housing rally with Gingrich. "And I have been saying for a long time that today's Republican Party picked up the playbook from those years, and (what) you see now from voter ID, immigration laws, are new creative devices being used to deny the effect of the vote, or at least to dilute the effect of the vote."
While Perry and Gingrich were stumping in South Carolina's Midlands, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was on the state's coast, blasting Obama and the dangers of big government.
"Once you become dependent, then the government has you," Santorum told a few hundred people at Sun City Hilton Head. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is an election about whether you're going to leave your children free — period."
Santorum also took some pointed questions from the audience about his conservative credentials because of his votes for the No Child Left Behind education act and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act that tightened financial regulation, votes he now says he regrets.
"I am a consistent conservative," he told the audience. "I didn't say I was perfect."
While Santorum, Perry, Gingrich and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman slugged it out in South Carolina, Romney ventured to Florida to raise funds and to campaign.
Sticking to a strategy of appearing above the fray, Romney made no mention of his GOP opponents during his West Palm Beach appearance. Instead, he attacked Obama's foreign and domestic policies.
"The president wants to make us more like a European-style welfare state" where the "role of government is to take from some and redistribute to others," he said.
(Douglas of the Washington Bureau reported from Columbia, S.C. Beam is a reporter for The State in Columbia, S.C. Kyle Peterson of The Beaufort Gazette/The Island Packet of South Carolina and Amy Sherman of The Miami Herald contributed.)
MORE FROM McCLATCHY