Mitt Romney has made the biggest slip-up of his campaign so far, saying he liked “being able to fire people”, just as his opponents started rounding on him for the “predatory” nature of the private equity firm he ran for 14 years.
New Hampshire primary: Mitt Romney says he ‘likes firing people’
By Alex Spillius in Nashua and Jon Swaine in Manchester, New Hampshire
9:40PM GMT 09 Jan 2012
The frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination had been on course for a comfortable win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary following last week’s narrow first-placed finish at the Iowa caucuses.
However, his apparently serene progress toward victory was threatened for the first time yesterday by an off-the-cuff remark during a chamber of commerce breakfast meeting that could hardly have been more ill-timed.
Just as allies of his main conservative rivals launched a multi-million dollar attack advert labelling him a heartless corporate raider, Mr Romney provided his opponents with a gift by saying the words “I like being able to fire people” during a question-and-answer session.
It came during an answer on how to bring down health care costs, when Mr Romney said he wanted individuals to buy their own health insurance rather than have their employer buy it for them. That, he said, would allow them to “fire” insurance companies they were unhappy with.
“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” he continued. “You know, if someone isn’t giving the good service, I want to say, I’m going to go get someone else to provide this service to,” he said.
In its full context the quote may seem more benign, but as a sound bite it will provide powerful ammunition not only to Republican opponents but, should he win the nomination, to President Barack Obama’s campaign.
Mr Romney’s record as the head of Bain Capital is now coming under growing scrutiny as other candidates try to find a way of slowing the momentum of the former Massachusetts governor before the campaign heads to South Carolina later this month.
He already has a healthy lead there and another win on Jan 21 would place him within touching distance of the nomination. He won the first contest in Iowa, albeit by eight votes.
However, one late Suffolk University poll last night showed Mr Romney’s lead in New Hampshire had already slipped to 33 per cent, down from 43 per cent last week.
Ben La Bolt, a spokesman for Mr Obama’s campaign, reacted quickly on Twitter to Mr Romney’s gaffe, simply tweeting three exclamation remarks, while the Democratic National Committee swiftly emailed a clip of the remark to reporters.
At the conclusion of his next campaign event, Mr Romney appeared before the media to try and limit the damage of what was a rare lapse in discipline.
“I believe in the right of people to get rid of an insurance company they don’t want,” he said. “That was what I was referring to. I understand in politics people are going to take it out of context, I have got to be an adult about it and get on with it.”
Bain Capital had created a net 100,000 jobs in more than 100 investments it made, he said, though research by the Wall Street Journal found that 22 percent of the companies that the company invested in filed for bankruptcy, while a significant number of those it turned around went into bankruptcy at a later state.
It came as a group supporting Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker, used a $5 million (£3.2 million) donation from a Las Vegas casino tycoon to release a half-hour film sharply attacking Mr Romney’s record in business.
‘The King of Bain: When Mitt Romney Came to Town’ features the stories of four ordinary Americans who say their lives were ruined when Mr Romney’s firm took over the companies they worked for, causing them to lose their jobs and homes.
The film, which is being broadcast in South Carolina, also shows footage of Mr Romney saying that “corporations are people” and an already infamous 1984 image of Mr Romney and Bain colleagues posing with dollar bills sticking out of their jackets, ears and mouths.
“They targeted companies, they raided them, and thousands of workers lost their jobs,” said Rick Tyler, a former Gingrich adviser now working for Winning Our Future, the group behind the film. “This is not capitalism.
This is predatory,” Asked at a campaign event in Manchester whether he was “doing the Democrats’ work for them”, Mr Gingrich stridently endorsed the attacks.
“If somebody is going to crumble, they had better crumble before the nomination,” he said. “He’s the one who went around saying ‘Look, I’ve had 20 years’ experience’. Fine, now let’s talk about the 20 years’ experience”.
The former Speaker repeated his allegation that Mr Romney had “looted” companies, leaving behind “broken families and broken neighbourhoods”.
Insisting he was “totally for capitalism,” he contrasted Bill Gates and Microsoft becoming “extraordinarily rich” by “providing a service” with turnaround firms such as Bain stripping companies down for profit.
“You have to ask the question,” Mr Gingrich said. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of people and walk off with the money, or is that in fact a little bit of a flawed system?”
Campaigning in Anderson, South Carolina, Rick Perry, the Texas governor struggling to make an impression in the race, mocked the frontrunner’s business experience.
He pointed out that people in the nearby town of Gaffney would find Mr Romney’s comments about firing people “incredible” because Bain had shut down a factory there with 150 workers.
Jon Huntsman, another contender, also weighed in: “It may be that he’s slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that’s a dangerous place to be.”
Mr Romney came fourth in New Hampshire in 2008 and is leaving nothing to chance this time. He has campaigned with supportive senators and governors, while his campaign aimed to make 150,000 volunteer phone calls from the weekend until the polls close.