BEDFORD, N.H. — Rivals are painting him as a Gordon Gekko Wall Streeter, but history is on Mitt Romney's side as New Hampshire voters cast their ballots today.
Polls show Romney heavily favored to win the first-in-the-nation primary, which would make him the first Republican in modern elections — with no incumbent competing — to win both Iowa and New Hampshire.
So the main New Hampshire question is who will place second, third and fourth. A strong showing by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman could thrust him into contention, while a poor showing by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would sap his momentum after barely losing Iowa.
Next up is more conservative South Carolina, where Romney also leads in the polls. Since South Carolina primary voters embraced Ronald Reagan in 1980, no one has won the GOP nomination without winning the Palmetto state.
And no one has won South Carolina without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire.
"The campaign is not taking anything for granted,'' Romney campaign adviser Kevin Madden said.
Three polls released in recent days show Romney leading Ron Paul by anywhere from 13 points to 24 points, with Huntsman, Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailing. New Hampshire has a history of defying expectations, however, and stronger than expected second-place New Hampshire finishes can draw more attention than actually winning.
Campaigning in New Hampshire and South Carolina on Monday, Romney's primary opponents sharpened their attacks on his record leading Bain Capital, a leveraged buyout firm that pocketed significant profits off companies that laid off employees or went under. The Democratic National Committee has been attacking Romney on Bain for months, and the Republican presidential candidates have jumped on it as well in recent days.
"You have to raise questions about somebody who goes and invests a certain amount of money, say about $30 million, takes out an amount, about $180 million, a 6-to-1 return, and then the company goes bankrupt," Gingrich told reporters in Manchester, N.H.
An independent political committee helping Gingrich is preparing to spend millions of dollars on TV ads against Romney in South Carolina, thanks to a $5 million donation from a casino magnate in Nevada.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who bypassed New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, said Monday that Bain "looted" companies, including two South Carolina firms where hundreds lost their jobs while Bain pocketed tens of millions of dollars in management fees.
"There's nothing wrong with being successful and making money — that's the American dream," Perry said. "But there is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failures and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business. I happen to think that that is indefensible. … If you are 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."
Romney, apparently understanding the danger of being cast as a Wall Street raider, has lately started explaining his background in stump speeches. Venture capitalists invest other people's money and their own in companies, he says, and are much more careful with it than government is with tax dollars.
"Free enterprise will be on trial," Romney told reporters Monday. "I thought it was going to come from the president and the Democrats from the left, but instead it's coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others. … I'm not worried about that. I've got broad shoulders, and I'm happy to describe my experience in the private economy."
His challengers also seized — out of context — a comment Romney made to a chamber of commerce group in Nashua about the importance of letting consumers shop around for health insurance providers.
"I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," Romney said. "You know, if someone doesn't give me the good service I need, I want to say, you know, I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me."
In Concord, N.H., Huntsman said the comment highlighted a difference between him and the front-runner.
"Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs," Huntsman said. "It may be that he's slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that's a dangerous place to be."
The quote pointed to Romney's penchant for making clumsy statements that can be used against him.
" 'I like being able to fire people' doesn't exactly scream electability," said Huntsman adviser John Weaver. "History shows that nominating a gaffe-prone, out-of-touch, flip-flopping, inauthentic candidate is a losing strategy. Yet, John Kerry's legacy lives on with Mitt Romney."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]