Days before winning the New Hampshire primary, Mitt Romney got a not-so-tough question served up at a campaign event by a big fan of his brand of laissez-faire capitalism.

“In this historic election, we need to convince the masses that our vision as conservatives benefits them,” the supporter said. “So my question is: How will you as the nominee get the minds of America behind you?”

“That,” he answered, “is the question of my campaign, of course.”

The exchange, as reported by political writer Dana Milbank, succinctly defined the likely Republican nominee’s central challenge in seeking to unseat President Obama. Pointing to his years as a venture capitalist as the fundamental rationale for his candidacy, Romney cites this private-sector experience as the key credential qualifying him to lead the nation out of economic stagnation.

Mitt Romney

At a time when many voters are as angry at Wall Street as at Washington, however, his record as a partner and CEO of the private equity firm Bain Capital offers a clear target for Democrats and Obama, who has begun repackaging himself as a progressive populist. It speaks volumes that Bain has unexpectedly become a big issue in the GOP primary as Romney rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have departed from Republican ideology to attack his business record from the left.

“They’re vultures that are sitting out there on the tree limb, waiting for the company to get sick,” Perry said in describing Bain. “And then they sweep in, they eat the carcass, they leave with that, and they leave the skeleton.”

Not to put too fine a point on it.

In advance of this weekend’s important South Carolina primary, members of the Republican establishment have fiercely defended Romney, hailing him as a hero of unfettered capitalism while hitting Gingrich and Perry as heretics for repeatedly highlighting the woes of workers who lost jobs in some Bain deals.

While the issue may actually benefit Romney in South Carolina, however, the heated debate over his private equity record is all but certain to evolve into a focus of the general election campaign, for at least three reasons:

• Inequality: The Occupy Wall Street movement has pushed the volatile issue of wealth disparity onto the political agenda. Republicans in the past successfully dismissed debate about third-world levels of wealth concentration in the U.S. as unpatriotic “class warfare,” but as mainstream voters become increasingly aware of the huge gap between the richest Americans and everyone else, Romney stands as a central-casting tribune of the one percent.

• Jobs: Romney claims that his Bain deals created at least 100,000 jobs. Putting aside the plain fact that his business purpose was to reap profits for himself and his investors, even if it meant looting a company, there is no hard evidence to support his claim, simply because of the extremely confidential nature of private-equity transactions. Instead, the most visible fallout of his work is the painful stories told by former employees of several companies in which Bain invested, who are prominently featured in anti-Romney TV ads.

• Transparency: For months, Romney has bobbed and weaved in response to demands, both by opponents and mainstream media, that he make public his tax returns, as major presidential candidates have done for decades. His reluctance likely derives from sweetheart U.S. tax laws, which allow private-equity executives like him to pay a 15-percent capital gains tax rate, instead of the 35-percent income rate, and permit deductions of interest on loans borrowed for highly leveraged deals.

While Republicans portray the election as a referendum on Obama, Democrats define it as a choice, casting Romney as a vivid symbol of greed-is-good capitalism. And even such a hardcore vilifier of Obama as Sarah Palin says that Romney has some explaining to do:

“Governor Romney has claimed to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain, and people are wanting to know — is there proof of that claim, and was it U.S. jobs created for United States citizens?” Palin said on Fox last week. “And that’s fair. That’s not negative campaigning — that’s fair to get a candidate to be held accountable to what’s being claimed.”


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