BERLIN, N.H. — The people inside a smoke-stained bingo hall are desperate for jobs. And Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential contender standing before them, says his business experience will help him save the nation's economy.
"What America needs and what I know have come together," says Romney. "I spent my life in business — 25 years in business."
The next day, Texas Gov. Rick Perry offers a different message to business leaders at the Bedford Village Inn.
"My actions as governor are helping create jobs in this country," says Perry, who spent the last decade as Texas' chief executive.
This intensifying debate between the two over public- and private-sector credentials will help define a GOP nomination fight focused squarely on the economy. The next president — whether it's President Barack Obama or any number of Republicans trying to unseat him — will be saddled with high unemployment and asked to draw upon his or her job-creation skills on Day One.
Friday's report was a fresh reminder of the troubled economy. The unemployment rate was stuck at 9.1 percent as employers stopped adding jobs in August.
But while this public sector vs. private sector debate may dominate the political posturing between Romney and Perry in the months ahead, history suggests that a president's work resume is overrated, especially after the candidate moves into the White House.
After all, peanut farmer and regular Republican punching bag Jimmy Carter, who lost his re-election bid in 1980 in the midst of an economic recession, had more business experience than conservative hero Ronald Reagan, a longtime actor and former California governor who served two terms in the White House.
Romney and Perry, who lead the field in national polls, offer voters very different resumes.
A one-term Massachusetts governor, Romney spent a quarter century in the business world, where he founded the private equity firm Bain Capital. Like Perry's jobs record, Romney's work history raises a host of questions about his role in job creation. Bain controlled some companies that expanded businesses and added staff, while others closed plants, cut hundreds of jobs and faced bankruptcy.
Still, Romney would bring the most business experience to the White House since Herbert Hoover, according to Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein. Hoover, of course, was a former mining executive who oversaw the onset of the Great Depression.
Other presidents with significant business backgrounds also struggled to find economic success once inside the Oval Office.
Both Bush presidents worked for years in the oil industry, which puts them in a class with Hoover as the presidents with the most private-sector experience, according to Barbara Perry, a senior fellow at the University of Virginia's Miller Center. She pointed out that George H. W. Bush struggled with the nation's economy while George W. Bush and Hoover "presided over crushing economic times."
That irony has not stopped some candidates from trying to fluff their resumes to highlight private-sector work as they try to prove they understand the economy because they've worked in it.
At nearly every campaign stop, Perry cites statistics showing that Texas is responsible for 40 percent of the jobs created in America since 2009. Those numbers include many factors out of Perry's control, including Texas' booming oil industry that benefits from high gas prices and the economic benefit associated with military spending there.
He also highlights his limited time in the business world.
An animal sciences major at Texas A&M University, Perry claimed more than a decade of private-sector experience while campaigning in Iowa last month. He also took a shot at Romney's work history, saying: "I was in the private sector for 13 years after I left the Air Force. So I wasn't on Wall Street, I wasn't working at Bain Capital."
While he cited 13 years in the private sector, Perry left the Air Force in 1977 and became a Texas state representative in 1984. He served three years in the part-time legislature, working on the family farm in between legislative sessions, before becoming the state agriculture commissioner. He would never leave the public sector.
Spokesman Mark Miner could not say what the governor did on the farm or whether he held a leadership position at the farm, which grew dryland cotton, milo and wheat.
Miner also suggested that Perry's years of military service should be counted as private-sector work, too. But presidential historians typically don't categorize military experience the same way.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann also is emphasizing her private sector experience, limited as it is. A state and federal lawmaker for the last 11 years, she was previously a government tax lawyer and she highlights the Christian counseling clinic run by her husband as proof of her private sector mettle. "I get it how to turn the economy around. I get it how to create jobs," she told Iowa Republicans gathered at the August straw poll.
Bachmann, a vocal critic of government spending, doesn't volunteer that the clinic's success depended at least in part of government health care programs.
It's unclear how much weight voters give public vs. private sector experience.
"I've seen lots of times where someone from the private sector may not be effective at getting the wheels turning in politics," says Bob Ball, among those gathered at inside the VFW bingo hall recently to see Romney. "I think it could be a bad thing."
As is often the case with the fiercely independent New Hampshire voter, his wife, Beth Ball, doesn't agree.
"I think we need a businessman in the White House," she says.
The couple, both Republicans, say they haven't seen enough of Perry to have an opinion about his career in politics. He's only been in the race a few weeks.
Since then, Romney has emphasized his own business experience even more than he had been before.
Asked recently about Perry, Romney simply said: "Understanding how the economy works by having worked in the real economy is finally essential in the White House. And I hope people recognize that."9 comments on this story
Back at the Berlin bingo hall, Romney talks of how he's spent much of his adult life in the business world, arguing that the experience gives him a unique understanding of the nation's economy.
"This for me is not about the next step in my political career," he says. "I don't have a political career. I spent 25 years in business."
Associated Press writer Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minn., contributed to this report.