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Reporter's notebook: Is Romney really the 'King of Bain'?

 

Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have been hammering Mitt Romney over his record at Bain Capital -- zeroing in specifically on two South Carolina companies Bain invested in that went under. One was GS Steel in Georgetown, S.C. The other was Holson Burnes in Gaffney, which made photo albums. 

Holson Burnes closed in 1992. One hundred and fifty people lost their jobs. 

In the region earlier this week, Perry launched into an assault against Romney, accusing the former governor of "vulture capitalism" -- waiting for a company to get sick, then picking at the parts to make millions. "If you're a victim of Bain Capital's downsizing, it's the ultimate insult for Mitt Romney to come to South Carolina and tell you he feels your pain, because he caused it," he said. 

Gingrich has assailed Romney's record at Bain, while his Super PAC Winning Our Future is releasing a 30-minute documentary accusing Romney of the worst type of corporate raiding. 

So what are voters in South Carolina thinking about all of this? Fox News stopped by the popular Gaffney lunch spot Daddy Joe's Bar-B-Q to find out. 

In walked Jim Cook, who happens to be the executive director of the Cherokee County Economic Development Board. I asked him what the impact of the plant closing was on the local economy. "The overall economic impact to Cherokee county was minimal," he said. "I've looked at the unemployment records for that time. There was a spike -- a short spike, but we ended the year about the same as we started the year. And in fact, the records show we created an additional 300 manufacturing jobs." 

He did say that the 150 people who lost their jobs at Holson Burnes no doubt felt the pain of their layoffs. But the economy, though slow, was in far better shape then to absorb the job josses. Cook says the real problem facing voters is the unemployment rate now, which in some counties has topped 12 and 14 percent -- unemployment rates that have nothing to do with Romney and his days at Bain. 

While voters in Gaffney may have long ago forgotten about the layoffs at Holson Burnes (the Bic pen company bought the factory a year later and has been going ever since), they have certainly heard the attacks on the campaign trail, or seen the advertisements excoriating what they call Romney's "get rich at any cost" form of capitalism. 

And they have certainly influenced some people. Richard Paulin stopped by Daddy Joe's for lunch. He's a Republican from Florida and will be voting in the primary there Jan. 31. From what he's heard about Romney and Bain, he doesn't trust him. He told me, "Several of his businesses have gone under and a lot of people have lost jobs and everything else, and -- the economy as it is -- it's just not worth the time and money to put somebody in who might, might help the economy, but surely he hasn't shown it to me in the business relationships he's had in the past." 

The Romney campaign, obviously stung by the attacks, finally gave in to pressure and is fighting back. On Friday, the campaign released a new television ad trumpeting what they call Romney's success stories at Bain -- office supply giant Staples and Sports Authority among them. Prominent Republicans have leapt to his side, criticizing Gingrich and Perry for attacking capitalism. One of Perry's biggest donors, Barry Wynn of South Carolina, bolted to Romney over it. 

Some voters I spoke with think the attacks are much ado about nothing. Tim Hornby says he's probably going to vote for Rick Santorum in the South Carolina primary, but that he holds no grudge against Romney for what happened to the Gaffney factory. "He may have came in and tried to streamline it," he told me, "And if there was not a feasibility to keep it open, sometimes plants closed. That's the way capitalism is." 

Romney's problems over Bain may be just beginning. The Democratic National Committee turned up the heat over bankruptcies and layoffs under Bain on Friday with a campaign memo stating, "Romney closed over a thousand plants, stores and offices, and cut employee wages, benefits and pensions. He laid off American workers and outsourced their jobs to other countries. And he and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars while taking companies to bankruptcy." 

Should Romney prevail in the nominating process and go on to face President Obama in the general election, what we've been seeing in South Carolina could be just a hint of what lies ahead.

John Roberts joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in January 2011 as a senior national correspondent and is based in the Atlanta bureau.