BLUFFTON, S.C. — South Carolina may be fertile ground for attacks on Mitt Romney's corporate takeover record.
The state has suffered a long string of shuttered textile plants and other workplaces. At 9.9 percent, it has one of the nation's highest unemployment rates. And like its fellow Deep South states, its Republican electorate has a disproportionate number of blue-collar workers and noncollege graduates.
That combination could make South Carolina a good test of efforts by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry to paint the GOP presidential front-runner as a heartless venture capitalist who fired workers while reaping big profits during his time at Bain Capital in the 1980s and '90s. Those attacks may be starting to resonate.
"I don't like it," said Rhonda Jones, 50, a Republican who showed up here Friday to see Perry at the Squat 'n 'Gobble cafe. The stay-at-home mom talked about how Romney's record at Bain "is what concerns me" and said she will vote for either Perry or Gingrich. Romney is a nonstarter.
"He was money-hungry himself," Jones said, adding that she knows several unemployed people. "He wasn't looking out for people."
South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary may mark the last real chance for his rivals to stop Romney's drive to the nomination.
President Barack Obama's aides have made it clear they will hammer Romney on Bain if he becomes the nominee. Obama won't try to win GOP-heavy South Carolina in November. But independent voters' reaction to the Bain-related attacks may give his campaign some hints of the issue's potency nationwide.
An array of conservative leaders and party officials are denouncing Gingrich and Perry for the Bain attacks, saying they sound like Democrats attacking free enterprise. Stung, the two candidates softened their criticisms in campaign stops throughout South Carolina this week.
But they didn't drop them altogether. And a well-financed group backing Gingrich is airing a foreboding TV ad here that shows displaced workers blaming Romney and Bain Capital for their job losses.
If enough GOP voters like Jones see it, Romney may face rougher sledding here than he did in Iowa and New Hampshire, says Merle Black of Emory University, who has written extensively on Southern politics.
"This is really going to be a challenge for him," Black said. When low-income and low-education Republicans hear the criticisms of Bain's record, he said, "it might repel them from Romney."
Generally speaking, Republicans are far more inclined than Democrats to accept capitalism's rough edges. These can include the so-called "creative destruction" of plant closings and fired workers in the drive for greater efficiency, which can lead to long-term growth and eventual hiring.
"Capitalism without failure isn't capitalism," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, another presidential hopeful, as he defended Romney's record at Bain this week.
Some Republicans who came to see Perry on Friday weren't bothered by Bain's mixed record of success and job growth with the companies it invested in.
"That's capitalism, as it should be," said Joe Belinske, 78, a retiree who splits his time between Ohio and South Carolina.
But there might be less tolerance of that view among some South Carolina Republicans.
Criticism of Bain's actions is chiefly aimed at blue-collar workers who live in fear of layoffs hitting themselves or their family. In many Northern and Midwestern states with significant union presence, that generally describes Democrats.
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