BEDFORD, N.H. â€”Â Mitt RomneyÂ fought to keep an upper hand in the Republican presidential race on Monday as his rivals sought to slow his march to the nomination and raise doubts about his electability by branding him as a job-killing corporate villain.
As New Hampshire voters prepared to cast ballots Tuesday in the nationâ€™s first primary, Mr. Romney found himself on the unfamiliar terrain of defending his business pedigree against fellow Republicans as his challengers tried to tap into a populist sentiment. He played into the criticism with a handful of missteps, with rivals jumping on him for having suggested that he, too, has feared getting â€œa pink slip.â€
The attacks were so piercing that some leading Republicans urged the candidates to back off, saying they were only helping validate the argument that President Obamaâ€™s re-election team has signaled would be central to its case against Mr. Romney if he becomes the nominee.
â€œIf somebodyâ€™s going to crumble, they better crumble before the nomination,â€ saidÂ Newt Gingrich, accusing Mr. Romney of â€œlootingâ€ companies at his investment firm, Bain Capital. He added, â€œIs capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?â€
Mr. Gingrich, who is fighting to keep his presidential aspirations alive, brazenly called on his benefactors to â€œcounterbalance Romneyâ€™s millionairesâ€ and donate money to a group backing him that has opened a blistering $3.4 million advertising barrage against Mr. Romney in South Carolina. A pro-Romney group responded by announcing a $2.3 million campaign of its own.
A heated Republican debate over the ethics of aggressive business tactics â€” and the broader implication that Mr. Romney was out of touch with the lives of ordinary people â€” seemed incongruous for a party that is traditionally unapologetic about its embrace of corporate wealth creation. A daylong series of exchanges underscored the urgency facing the Republican hopefuls who are fighting for an edge when the race moves beyond New Hampshire.
Mr. Romney, whose standing in the state has slipped in recent days, anticipated the disparagement and is trying to put a human face on theÂ private equityÂ business to push back against being portrayed as a greedy titan who saw his own wealth rise as companies that Bain acquired laid off workers and closed factories. Mr. Romney, who went into business after receiving law and business degrees from Harvard and grew up as the son of the chairman of American Motors, seemed to acknowledge that he still needs to do more to connect with voters.
â€œFor me, this is going to be a battle about describing my heart, my passion to help, if you will, the great majority of Americans,â€ Mr. Romney said. He worked to brush aside the criticism of Bain, adding: â€œI thought it was going to come from the president, from the Democrats,Â from the left, but instead itâ€™s coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others.â€
On the eve of the New Hampshire primary, his Republican challengers were ready to pounce on any opening. When Mr. Romney argued that consumers should have more choices in how they get their health insurance, he said: â€œIt also means that if you donâ€™t like what they do, you can fire them.â€ He added, â€œI like being able to fire people who provide services to me.â€
Former Gov.Â Jon M. Huntsman Jr.Â of Utah seized on the remark barely an hour later, telling reporters at a rally in Concord, â€œGovernor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs.â€ He added, â€œIt may be that heâ€™s slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now.â€