WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney is taking a lot of heat from his Republican rivals, who question just how successful he has really been in turning small businesses into major job-creating enterprises.
These are companies that were not well known at the time but have since become household names like Staples, the office supply store, one of his earliest investments. Romney and Bain Capital, the venture capital company he co-founded, plowed $4.5 million into the tiny business begun by two entrepreneurs in Brighton, Mass. in 1986.
Staples has since grown to over 2,000 stores in 26 countries, employing thousands of people.
Romney and his partners raised the capital they used to invest from private investors, and their success with Staples provided them with additional resources to invest in other entrepreneurs to expand their enterprises.
Bain grew, and in the process it hired a lot of business analysts and other support personnel. The companies they invested in or acquired in buyout deals became hugely successful enterprises: Domino's Pizza, Sealy, Sports Authority, Dunkin' Donuts, Toys R Us, Burger King and countless other firms whose expansion over the years have created thousands of jobs.
But venture capital investing and acquisitions is a risky business, and not all of the deals worked out. Even in the best of times, about half of all small businesses close within the first five years.
So some of Bain's investments failed and went bankrupt and people lost their jobs. That's what Newt Gingrich and other GOP candidates are pointing to in their desperate, demagogic attacks on Romney's record in the business world.
Gingrich, the former speaker who has spent most of his adult life living on the government's payroll, says he's for capitalism, but not when investors can profit from their failures anyway, and "go off with millions; that's not traditional capitalism."
Well, sometimes it is. The assets of a failed company have to be sold, and the investors who lent the money are often first in line to be paid back.
But Gingrich isn't just accusing Romney of sometimes picking investments that failed; he accuses him of stealing from a Kansas City steel mill that eventually failed.
"You would certainly have to say that Bain, at times, engaged in behavior where they looted a company, leaving behind 1,700 unemployed people," Gingrich said during Sunday's candidate debate on "Meet the Press."
That's a strange accusation coming from someone who was paid nearly $2 million by Freddie Mac, the federally funded home mortgage giant that was at the center of the subprime mortgage scandal and was eventually bailed out by the taxpayers to the tune of $153 billion.
While Freddie Mac was spiraling into a bottomless pit of debt, Gingrich and his firm were profiting handsomely from what his critics say was a lucrative lobbying job to connect the agency with key conservatives in Congress.
During one of the Republican presidential debates, Rep. Ron Paul suggested that Gingrich was, in effect, being paid with taxpayer bailouts.
For 25 years, Romney pursued a successful career in business before he seriously plunged into politics, pooling venture capital in the private sector and seeking out good investment opportunities that created a lot of jobs.
It's not clear how many jobs, because Bain did not keep records on the number of jobs its investments created. It was in the business of bankrolling companies that would grow and provide Bain with a good return on its investment. That's how capitalism works, Newt.
Romney freely admits that not all of Bain's investments succeeded, but most did. A Wall Street Journal study of 77 businesses that Bain invested in when Romney headed the company between 1984 and 1999 showed that 22 percent of them failed within an eight-year period, but the rest succeeded, rewarding Bain with between 50 percent to 80 percent yearly gains over this period.
Gingrich's campaign, with the help of a $5 million check he received from a billionaire Las Vegas casino mogul, is preparing a barrage of TV ads in South Carolina, featuring workers who lost their jobs at companies financed by Bain Capital. The strategy is right out of Sen. Teddy Kennedy's political playbook when he faced a surprisingly aggressive re-election challenge from Romney in 1994.
But Gingrich's political attack on Romney's jobs record is just a sampling of what Romney can expect from President Obama's campaign strategists. Insiders say they are also preparing an all-out offensive against the former governor's work at Bain if he's the GOP's presidential nominee.
Obama's dismal job approval rating has risen to the mid-40s lately, in large part due to last month's 200,000 increase in new jobs, cutting the national jobless rate to 8.5 percent. But the real unemployment rate is about 15.2 percent if discouraged job-seekers who have dropped out of the workforce, and part-timers, are factored in.
Despite last month's job numbers, the unemployment rate in nearly a dozen states is still 10 percent or higher.
Romney will be pounding away at the jobs issue this fall if he wins the GOP nod, and the Obama campaign will do whatever it takes to raise new doubts about his own touted record on job creation.
Romney can blunt the Gingrich/Obama demagoguery on this issue by running ads showing the people his job-creation investments have employed. He can compare that record with the corrupt Solyndra solar panel scandal that the president promoted and sank half a billion tax dollars into, despite warnings from his own advisers that it was a bad investment on the brink of collapse.
Solyndra went bankrupt last year, 1,000 workers lost their jobs -- and the taxpayers are footing the bill.
Romney has a great story to tell about his success as an investor and the lengthy line of successful businesses and good-paying jobs he helped to create. It only takes a belief in the power of free enterprise and free markets and getting government out of the way.