Facing efforts by his Republican rivals to paint him as a heartless corporate raider who preyed on struggling companies while working in the world of private equity, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney stepped up his defense of his tenure at Bain Capital on Thursday -- gently pushing back against those attacks by arguing that his goal had been to make businesses successful over the long term.
Supporters of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich have promised a "strong and sustained" campaign in the Palmetto state attacking Romney's career at Bain. Channeling their resources into a super PAC known as inning Our Future, the committee is now running a "trailer" on South Carolina television directing voters to a film that focuses on four companies that Bain acquired more than two decades ago. The documentary-style film portrays Romney as a "corporate raider" who pursued profits at the cost of jobs.
On Thursday at Cherokee Trikes, which manufactures the "trikes" that turn two-wheel motorcycles into three-wheelers, Romney said he believed his record at Bain had been vetted by reporters over the years and sought to steer attention toward the more positive stories of Bain's investments in companies that ultimately created jobs.
"There are a number of businesses that we helped start, which collectively, you can just look on their websites, added well over 100,000 jobs: Staples, Bright Horizons Children's Centers, the Sports Authority, Steel Dynamics. Those four alone added well over 100,000 jobs," Romney told reporters in Greer.
But he acknowledged that Bain's investments had led to some job losses (he put the number at "a few thousand"): "In each case where there was job loss, there was an effort on the part of the management team to try and preserve the businesses to have a brighter future. That's why that happens," he said. "It's to try to make the business more successful and give it an ongoing future."
"The net of the two is pretty clearly -- well over 100,000 jobs," he continued. "The reality is in the private sector, that there are some businesses that are growing and thriving -- and we were fortunate enough to be able to be part of that in a small way -- and there's some businesses that have to be cut back in order to survive to try to make them stronger. Sometimes you're successful at that and sometimes you're not."
Romney was pressed specifically on two companies that Bain controlled several decades ago – the steel company GSI Industries and the photo album company Holson Burnes – where the firm's moves ultimately led to job losses in South Carolina. In Fort Mill on Tuesday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to draw attention to those job losses, suggesting that firms like Bain acted like "vultures" that monitored struggling companies and then swept in to "eat the carcass."
"Any time a job is lost it's a tragedy," Romney said Thursday when asked to speak to South Carolinians who had lost jobs as a result of Bain's actions. "For the family, for the individual that loses a job, it's just devastating. And every time that we invested in the business it was to try and encourage that business to have ongoing life."
Asked to respond to attacks that Bain was only concerned about short-term profits, the former Massachusetts governor insisted that "the idea of making a short-term profit actually doesn't really exist in business, because no one wants to buy something or buy stock in a company that's just going to be a short-term success." Instead, he said, Bain tried to make businesses more successful over the long term, both to generate a return for shareholders and to "see more employment."
Campaigning in a state that has regained less than one-third of the 165,000 jobs it has lost since the recession began, Romney touted his experience as a turnaround artist during the morning rally at Cherokee Trikes.
After answering questions from reporters in Greer, Romney was asked to hop on one of the motorcycles for the cameras. "And put on a helmet maybe, Dukakis style?" Romney responded with a grin, referring to the widely ridiculed photo-op in 1988 of Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis sitting in a tank.
Romney, who said he's ridden his son's motorcycle "on occasion," declined.