WASHINGTON — Conventional wisdom, supported by polls, maintains that Mitt Romney would be a tougher opponent than Newt Gingrich against President Barack Obama.
But one factor keeps Democrats from salivating over Gingrich's rise in the Republican presidential race: Romney may present a fatter target on jobs, the issue expected to dominate the 2012 contest.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, says his greatest asset is his understanding of business and job creation. Obama's team has compiled a thick file to rebut that claim, based mainly on Romney's time as head of the private equity firm Bain Capital in the 1980s and 1990s. Bain made hefty profits for Romney and other officials and investors. But hundreds of workers sometimes lost their jobs in the process.
Considerable research already exists for Obama. When Romney unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., in 1994, Democrats ran attack ads featuring laid-off workers from American Pad & Paper, or Ampad. After Bain acquired the company in 1992, it cut 385 jobs and closed two U.S. plants. Ampad sought bankruptcy protection in 2000, shortly after Romney had left Bain.
A few other Bain reorganization projects met similar fates, although some prospered and grew.
The Obama camp has no comparable jobs "opposition research" on Gingrich. The former House speaker spent his career as a college instructor, lawmaker and Washington-based consultant, none of which involved hiring or firing large numbers of people.
"Romney's record is a target-rich environment, since he threw people out of jobs to make a lot of money," said Doug Hattaway, a Democratic strategist. "Gingrich is harder to paint as a job-destroyer."
In some ways, it would make sense for Obama supporters to root for Gingrich. He has charmed and alienated people about equally, at best, during his long up-and-down career.
The latest Associated Press-GfK poll found Romney and Obama essentially tied when Americans were asked their voting intentions for 2012. But Obama led Gingrich, 51 percent to 42 percent.
Nonetheless, some Obama advisers seem eager to take on Romney, saying the line of attack on jobs is much clearer than it is for Gingrich.
When Romney was endorsed by Delaware tea party activist Christine O'Donnell — she once declared "I'm not a witch" in a Senate race ad — Obama strategist David Axelrod jumped in. "If Christine O'Donnell really wants to help Mitt, maybe she can cast a spell and make his MA and Bain records disappear," Axelrod said via Twitter.
Romney is trying to inoculate himself.
During last Thursday's GOP debate in Iowa, Romney predicted Obama will "go after me and say: 'You know, in businesses that you've invested in, they didn't all succeed. Some failed. Some laid people off.' And he'll be absolutely right. But if you look at all the businesses we invested in, over a hundred different businesses, they added tens of thousands of jobs."
Reviews of Bain's history by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and others have concluded it's difficult to prove or disprove the thrust of Romney's claim. There's ample evidence of jobs lost, and jobs gained, by companies reorganized by Bain during Romney's leadership.
Bain often borrowed heavily against the companies' assets, then restructured the firms and sold them, sometimes for big profits. A 2000 prospectus touting Bain's work under Romney, first reported by the Times, estimated a remarkable 88 percent average annual internal rate of return from 1984 to 1999.
Politico reported in 2008 that Dade International, acquired by Bain in 1994, laid off more than 1,800 workers during Romney's time there. And LIVE Entertainment laid off 40 of 166 workers following a Bain buyout.
The Associated Press reported Monday that a South Carolina photo album manufacturer controlled by Bain flourished for a while but eventually laid off about 150 workers.
The Romney campaign says some of the companies badly needed to become more efficient, and layoffs were an inevitable part of the process. The campaign points to success stories at some companies reorganized by Bain. Staples has 89,000 workers, the Sports Authority 15,000 and Domino's pizza 7,900, the campaign says.
Democrats differ on whether Romney's record at Bain is enough to render him a weaker nominee than Gingrich, who left Congress in 1998 under an ethics cloud and after suffering from run-ins with fellow Republicans.
"I'd definitely say that not having Bain is a plus for Gingrich," said Robert Gibbs, a former top Obama aide. "However, I'm not sure what Gingrich's positive jobs agenda would be."
Gibbs said Gingrich's tax proposals would hurt the economy.
Romney's history with Bain has emerged at times in the Republican primary contest. After Romney said Gingrich should return the $1.6 million he made as a consultant to mortgage giant Freddie Mac, Gingrich fired back.
"If Gov. Romney would like to give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him," Gingrich said.
He slightly backed away from the remarks after some conservatives accused him of being anti-capitalism.