By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The labels being attached to Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney seem to be straight out of the Democrats' playbook.
Elitist. Job killer. Out of touch.
Using Romney's own words against him, foes of the Republican front-runner and venture capitalist essentially are casting him as an enemy of the middle class in a time of economic peril.
That the accusers are fellow Republicans - Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman - is a reflection of their increasing desperation to stop Romney, and of what analysts say could be a weakness for Romney as the campaign for the November election moves on.
The latest Romney comment to draw fire came on Monday in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Speaking to a business group, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, answered a question about healthcare systems by saying, "I like to be able to fire people who provide services to me."
In heated campaign fueled by sound bites, the context hardly mattered. Soon afterward, Huntsman pounced.
"Governor Romney enjoys firing people; I enjoy creating jobs," said Huntsman, a former Utah governor whose slim hopes in the Republican campaign rest on a strong finish in New Hamshire's primary on Tuesday. "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 episode came after a weekend in which Romney was blasted by other Republican candidates - particularly Gingrich - over his tenure at Bain Capital, the private equity firm co-founded by Romney, who has touted his success in business.
In debates over the weekend and continuing on Monday, Gingrich assailed Romney for "looting" companies during his time as head of Bain, which invested in a range of companies.
Gingrich, a former House of Representatives speaker, cited a Reuters story that examined a Kansas City steel company that was purchased by Bain.
Bain doubled its money on the deal but the company declared bankruptcy in 2001, laying off 750 workers and stripping them of healthcare and other benefits.
Analysts and former company executives say Bain's decision to load the company with debt made it harder to weather a downturn in the economy.
"I am totally for capitalism, I am for free markets," Gingrich said on Monday, seeming to acknowledge the oddity of a conservative Republican bemoaning the success of a business.
What concerned him, Gingrich said, was Bain's "6-to-1 returns, and the company goes bankrupt."
Winning Our Future, a political action committee supporting Gingrich, says it will soon release a 27-minute video on Romney's time with Bain, and plans to spend $3.4 million in South Carolina in advance of the January 21 primary there, presumably bashing Romney.
GINGRICH'S MIDDLE-CLASS APPEAL
Earlier, Gingrich seized on another comment Romney made over the weekend as he recalled advice from his father George Romney, who was an American Motors chief executive officer and Michigan governor.
Mitt Romney said his father told him not to run for public office if he needed the salary the job would pay, or if he had a mortgage to pay.
Romney, a graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Business School with an estimated net worth of $270 million, was trying to warn against the idea of being a career politician who seeks to profit from public office.
But soon after Sunday's debate, Gingrich accused Romney of suggesting that only the wealthy should run for office.
"We want everyday, normal people, to be able to run for office. Not just millionaires," Gingrich said. "I think it's really important we get back to making it possible for everyday, middle-class candidates to go out and run for office."
Following Gingrich's theme, Perry on Monday ripped into Romney for saying he knew what it was like to fear a pink slip, or being fired.
In another reference to Romney's time at Bain, Perry said: "I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips," said the Texas governor, campaigning in South Carolina. "Whether he would have enough to hand out."
For Perry, who has called Democratic President Barack Obama a socialist and criticized such job-saving actions as the U.S. government's bailout of the auto industry, the criticism of Romney amounted to a reach into populism.
Republican strategists say that in blasting Romney's business record, conservatives such as Gingrich and Perry could cause discomfort in a party that views itself as a defender of free markets and opportunities to achieve wealth.
One thing is clear: Accusing Romney of being an elitist matches what almost certainly will be a key part of the strategy of Obama's re-election campaign and groups that support the president.
"In fact, we will do it much better than the Republicans are doing it now," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge, a Democratic "opposition research" unit that uses film footage of candidates' own words to discredit them.
"The stuff that is coming out of Romney's mouth - we will use it in a way that will be sustained and amplified," Mollineau said. "We will use all the tools available to us to show how out of touch he is with the concerns of middle class Americans."
GINGRICH 'RUNNING ADS FOR OBAMA'
Vin Weber, a special adviser to Romney, said it was "bizarre" for Romney to be attacked over his record at Bain by fellow Republicans.
Referring to Gingrich's attack, Weber told Reuters: "It would help if the former speaker wasn't helping to run ads for the Obama campaign."
But Ford O'Connell, a Republican strategist, said the attacks actually might help Romney.
"These seem to be the lines of attack that the Democratic National Committee and President Obama will take to Romney if he becomes the nominee," O'Connell said.
"It's probably better that it is coming out now and not in a general election. This could make him stronger - if he can overcome them."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Mohammad Zargham)