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.
In the South, however, the long-running realignment of the two parties has moved millions of working-class whites into the GOP. In 1980 presidential exit polls, 49 percent of noncollege whites in the South said they were Democrats, while 29 percent were Republicans. In 2008, those numbers were almost reversed: 26 percent Democrats, 47 percent Republicans.
No other region saw such a dramatic shift. One reason involves race.
Southern whites from every income level began fleeing the Democratic Party in the 1960s, and now the realignment is virtually complete. The GOP is an overwhelmingly white party nationwide. In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is home to blacks and a comparatively small number of white liberals.
Romney, a multimillionaire former governor of Massachusetts, is fairly easy to caricature as a tycoon to blue-collar Republicans, Black said. "There might be some irritation with someone like Romney, who is not seen as on their side," he said.
Early in the week, Perry accused Romney of "vulture capitalism."
Romney notes that some companies thrived and expanded after Bain restructured them, a process that created jobs, rewarded investors and enriched Bain's executives. A Wall Street Journal examination concluded that most of Bain's profits during Romney's tenure came from 10 deals. Another 22 percent of Bain's reorganization targets, however, declared bankruptcy within eight years.
One not-so-rosy story took place in Gaffney, S.C. A photo frame factory owned by a Bain-controlled company closed in 1992, just four years after it opened.
The 100 jobs lost are small by national standards. But the episode brings a close-to-home feel to the anti-Romney ads on TV here.
Romney is responding with his own ad that says he helped create and run a company that invested in struggling businesses, expanded new ones, and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs.
Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, says all candidates are eyeing "disaffected" voters, who may be even more important in the fall general election. Pew describes these voters as "financially stressed and cynical about politics. Most lean to the Republican Party," although they tend to support "increased government aid to the poor."1 comment on this story
"They are wary of all institutions," Kohut said in an interview. "They're suspicious of fat cats."
That's the sentiment the pro-Gingrich group is trying to tap with the ad depicting Romney as a Wall Street tycoon who treats small towns as profit sources and little else.
Obama did comparatively well among these disaffected voters in 2008. But they swung heavily to the GOP in the 2010 mid-term elections.
Gingrich and Perry hope they will turn against Romney on Jan. 21. If Romney survives, then Democrats will try the Bain-bashing with a larger audience next fall.