As voters weighed their choices ahead of today's presidential primary in New Hampshire, the front-runner Mitt Romney came under fire yesterday as a "corporate raider" who, as chief executive of the venture-capital firm Bain Capital, "looted" companies and robbed workers of their jobs.
Mr Romney, a co-founder of the large Boston-based private equity firm that has grown fat purchasing and turning around ailing companies, is basing his bid for the White House in part on his experience working at the core of American capitalism.
But just as he seeks to consolidate his lead in the polls here and in the next two primary states, South Carolina and Florida, the less-pretty side to the story – reviving companies sometimes means stripping assets and slashing payrolls – is being seized on by his foes.
Leading the assault is Newt Gingrich, who makes little secret of his desire to hurt Mr Romney as much as possible as retribution for negative TV ads that the former Massachusetts Governor ran against him in Iowa. An independent group created to back Mr Gingrich was to begin airing in South Carolina segments of a scathing half-hour film focusing on four firms bought and closed down by Bain.
Mr Romney does not always help himself. Advocating choice in the healthcare insurance market with New Hampshire business leaders in Nashua, he said "I like being able to fire people" if they aren't giving him decent service. It was a gift to Democrats crafting their own anti-Romney ads. It might also have been unwise to tell another group here at the weekend that he understands the pain of those about to receive the so-called "pink slip", a euphemism in the US for being fired. "I know what it's like ... there were a couple of times I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip," he said.
Rick Perry, the Governor of Texas who is looking to salvage his lagging campaign, told voters in South Carolina: "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips – whether he'd have enough of them to hand out."
Mr Romney led Bain through most of the 1980s and 1990s. Over the years, it has bought Toys R Us, Dunkin' Donuts and helped found Staples. Mr Romney said it was responsible for a net gain of 100,000 jobs, but has not provided evidence.
Mr Gingrich said yesterday it was time for his rival to "walk through in considerable detail some of the companies that Bain took over where they apparently looted the company, left people unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars".
Last night, the Romney camp hit back. "It is no surprise that, having spent nearly half a century in government between them, Speaker Gingrich and Governor Perry have resorted to desperate attacks on a subject they don't understand," spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "We expect attacks on free enterprise from President Obama and his allies on the left – not from so-called 'fiscal conservatives'."
The video to be aired by the Gingrich-friendly group Winning Our Future is titled 'When Mitt Romney came to Town." It is, according to a trailer, "a story of greed, playing the system of a quick buck", perpetrated by "a group of corporate raiders led by Mitt Romney, more ruthless than Wall Street."
Even-of-election polls showed Mr Romney hanging on to a significant lead even though it had shrank somewhat. The Suffolk University poll put him at 33 per cent in the state. Libertarian Ron Paul was pegged at 20 per cent, Jon Huntsman at 13, Gingrich at 11. Rick Santorum, the winner in Iowa last week, was at 10 per cent in the survey.
Yet, New Hampshire has a history of delivering surprises in its first-in-the-nation primary and it may be that the Bain-related assault will cost Mr Romney more dearly than he is expecting. For the rest of the field – and in particular Mr Huntsman who must perform strongly here to stay in the race – the key will be slowing his momentum before the vote on Saturday week in South Carolina.
Mr Gingrich shared with reporters his satisfaction at Mr Romney hit rough air. "Given the weight of negativity that Romney threw at us in Iowa, you would be little bit less than human if you weren't pretty happy that you're now going to see a more even playing field," he said.