WASHINGTON — What gives? Some of Mitt Romney's rivals are waging a fierce attack that you'd never think would come from the mouths of Republicans who claim Ronald Reagan as their hero. They're blasting the GOP front-runner for aggressive, wealth-creating business tactics.
The criticism, mostly from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, didn't seem to matter much in New Hampshire, where Romney claimed a comfortable primary victory. Gingrich was fourth and Perry was sixth.
But the sniping may have more resonance in next-in-line South Carolina, which is far more economically depressed, and in Florida. Both states are struggling with high joblessness and weak housing markets. South Carolina's primary is Jan. 21, Florida's is Jan. 31.
Trying to tap into populist sentiment, Gingrich and Perry are accusing Romney of being a fat-cat venture capitalist during his days running the private equity firm Bain Capital, laying off workers as he restructured companies and filled his own pockets.
A group backing Gingrich is airing TV ads in South Carolina showing distraught people who say they lost their jobs to Bain's restructuring practices while Romney was at the helm.
Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, at first joined Gingrich and Perry in the attacks on Romney. But on Wednesday after his third-place finish in New Hampshire, Huntsman backed away in part from such criticism while continuing to assail Romney's four years as Massachusetts governor.
The Bain Capital attacks are nearly identical to criticism once leveled at Romney by one of the nation's best-known Democrats, Ted Kennedy, when Romney tried to claim Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in 1994. Whether that tactic helped or not, Kennedy, who died in 2009, did hold on to his seat.
To hear such accusations now from Republicans — historically the party of business and free enterprise — is particularly notable.
"It's like watching dogs walk on their hind feet. It's not impossible, but it certainly looks odd when you see it," said economist Bruce Bartlett, who worked in the Republican administrations of Reagan and George H.W. Bush. "I don't think they seriously believe there is anything wrong with what Romney did. I just think that they're trying to use any card that they can find in the deck that might give them an edge. It's simple expediency."
Romney has shrugged off the fusillade.
"We understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise." he told reporters as he flew from New Hampshire to South Carolina on Wednesday. "We're a little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness for the prosecution."
Romney has repeatedly touted his business career as giving him the right credentials for dealing with a tough economy and the know-how to produce jobs. However, in the process of restructuring companies to make them more profitable, many workers indeed were laid off. The criticism from fellow Republicans now threatens to undercut Romney's central argument that his private-sector experience best positions him to defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.
Gingrich, mounting the fiercest attacks, denies he's arguing against capitalism.
"I am totally for capitalism. ... I do draw a distinction between (it) and looting a company," says the former House speaker. He also asks, "Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money?"
Gingrich was a little more subdued on Wednesday. Without naming the former Massachusetts governor, Gingrich said at a campaign event in Rock Hill S.C., that he wants "free enterprise that is honest. I want a free enterprise system that is accountable."