MANCHESTER, N.H. – Seeing their last chance to take out the front-runner before the critical Republican presidential primary vote in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Mitt Romney's rivals are pulling out all the stops, targeting Romney's record as a venture capitalist to say he's out of touch with Americans.
Rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry early Monday launched their broadsides, with Gingrich demanding an accounting of Romney's role at Bain Capital, the venture capital firm that Romney cites to promote his success in private business.
"At some point Gov. Romney has to hold a press conference and walk through in detail some of the companies that Bain took over where they apparently looted the companies, left people unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars," Gingrich told NBC's "Today."
"Look, I'm for capitalism," Gingrich added. "If somebody comes in, takes all the money out of your company and leaves you bankrupt while they go off with millions, that's not traditional capitalism."
"It is the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to say he feels your pain when he caused it," said Rick Perry.
Speaking in Anderson, S.C., Perry pointed to two companies in the Palmetto State -- Holson Burnes and GS Industries -- which downsized or dissolved after Bain came in to restructure them.
"There is nothing wrong with being successful and making money … it's the American Dream," Perry said. "But getting rich off failure and sticking someone else with the bill is indefensible."
The attacks on Romney echo the Democratic assault on the former Massachusetts governor, who's leading the polls in New Hampshire. A WMUR-University of New Hampshire poll out Monday showed Romney with a 24-point lead over his rivals, with Ron Paul at 17 percent and Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum tied with 11 percent. Gingrich and Perry are at the back of the pack with 8 percent and 1 percent, respectively. The poll of 461 likely voters was taken Jan. 5-8.
Romney has tried to stay above the fray, dispatching withering attacks during two debates over the weekend with moderate ease. But the WMUR/UNH poll suggested that expectations are high for the candidate -- 78 percent of those surveyed said they expect Romney to win on Tuesday.
"Managing expectations, I think is the biggest problem for the Romney campaign," said Andy Smith, director of UNH's Survey Center. "And to make sure that his voters don't say, you know, he's got it in the bag, I can stay home on Tuesday."
Smith told Fox News that Romney had slipped in polls by about 5 points, but that's primarily due to the proximity of the race.
"That's typically the thing that happens. A couple weeks before the election, people say, oh, yeah, the front-runner, he sounds good enough to me, but as you get closer, they start to pay attention to what the other candidates (say)," Smith said.
Smith added that if Romney hits 40 percent on Election Day, he can't be criticized for his performance, but anything below 35 percent could create an opening for someone to exploit a perceived weakness in the Romney campaign.
For his part, Romney said that his success at Bain started from the bottom up, and he has "learned some lessons along the way, saw some successes and some failure." He added that those lessons are far less forgiving than what happens in government because if a business fails year upon year, people lose their investments and the company goes out of business.
That doesn't happen in government. If an administration fails, it blames the opposition party. It's a long time coming for government to run with more of the "care and seriousness" that occurs in business, he said.
In pointing out Romney's role at Bain, Gingrich, who claims he has seen momentum among voters in his direction in the final days, is counting in part on a new movie produced by a pro-Gingrich super PAC to derail Romney's momentum. The film, which Gingrich said he has not seen, accuses Romney of "reaping massive awards" at Bain Capital at the expense of companies taken over by the private equity firm.
In the meantime, a Wall Street Journal report out Monday, which offered a review of Bain's performance, notes that Romney did achieve spectacular success for investors with Bain, but that the majority of it came from a fraction of the 77 firms the company decided to back during Romney's leadership between 1984 and early 1999.
The Journal report found that 22 percent of those firms filed for bankruptcy or folded by the end of the eighth year after Bain first invested, and that caused some substantial job losses, though some of the decisions to dissolve were made after Bain already cashed out.
With 10 deals producing more than 70 percent of the dollar gains, Bain made about $2.5 billion in gains on about $1.1 billion invested, the Journal reported. About 8 percent of the investments ran into so much trouble all the money Bain invested was lost.
Bain's 50 to 80 percent annual gains in this period were among the best for buyout firms in that era, according to experts who spoke with the newspaper, which conjectured the findings will be used by both supporters and critics of the candidate.
"He owes us a report on his stewardship of the private record," Gingrich said.
As the primary date draws close, Granite Staters have watched roughly $5 million worth of TV ads paid for by candidates and political action committees aligned with them. Most of the money has come from Romney, Paul and a Hunstman-aligned group.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, skipped Iowa in hopes of a breakout showing in New Hampshire. He planned a frantic pace of campaigning on Monday, with seven stops on his itinerary -- from Lebanon near the Vermont line to the seacoast.
UNH's Smith said a strong Huntsman showing in New Hampshire may not serve him well in the long run since support among the state's vast number of undeclared candidates, who are allowed to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary, likely comes from those who lean Democrat. His high numbers would not then be duplicated in South Carolina or other states where crossover voters are not permitted to participate in party races.
Perry, who attended the weekend's debate, had previously planned to bypass New Hampshire and revive his candidacy in South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21.