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The central argument of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is that he understands how the economy works thanks to his business background. He says he understands the economy in a way that President Obama does not.
Democrats have been challenging Romney's claim. They've been questioning the private equity firm that he founded. He says it helped to create more than 100,000 jobs.
Now some of Romney's Republican rivals are raising questions of their own. We'll hear more about one of those GOP attacks in a moment. First, here's NPR's Scott Horsley with some background on the Romney track record.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mitt Romney has been touting his record as a successful businessman who knows how to create jobs. But that's only part of the story. Randy Johnson worked at a paper company in Indiana that was bought and later shut down by Romney's investment firm, Bain Capital. This winter, Johnson's been traipsing around Iowa and New Hampshire telling anyone who will listen that Bain is not the unblemished job-generating engine that Romney makes it out to be.
RANDY JOHNSON: They bought my plant in '94. And then in 2000 they let Ampad go bankrupt and they made $100 million. Now tell me what's right. There's something wrong with that.
HORSLEY: Johnson and other paper workers began shadowing Romney when he ran for Senate in 1994. Their complaints about Bain Capital's treatment contributed to Romney's loss that year.
Now that Romney's on a roll, some of his fellow Republicans are taking up the workers' charge. Yesterday, Rick Perry accused Romney of looting two South Carolina companies that Bain invested in. And a super-PAC supporting Newt Gingrich is promoting a new video alleging Romney grew wealthy in part by sacrificing U.S. workers.
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HORSLEY: Romney continues to share in Bain's profits, even though he left the firm more than a decade ago. Asked about these charges during an ABC debate this weekend, Romney defended his work with Bain Capital.
MITT ROMNEY: This is a free enterprise system. We don't need government to come in and tell us how to make businesses work. We need people with passion, willing to take risk and help turn things around. And where that works, you create jobs.
HORSLEY: Romney insists Bain's investments helped create more than 100,000 jobs, even if you subtract the workers who were laid off to cut costs or because businesses failed. He routinely cites successful companies that were backed by Bain, such as Staples, the Sports Authority and Dominos pizza. Together those companies employ more than 100,000 people.
But Romney's been less forthcoming about jobs that were cut on Bain's watch. This weekend, for example, Romney pointed to the Steel Dynamics Company of Indiana as one that grew thanks to Bain's investment. He did not mention a century-old steel plant in Kansas City, where 750 workers lost their jobs. Donny Box was one of those. He'd spent 32 years at the plant as a maintenance millwright.
DONNY BOX: You've got a piece of equipment out in the mill that broke down, that was my expertise. I'd go out there and keep the mill running. And the guys that worked out there on the production plant, these guys' jobs were to put steel out the end of the door. And that's what we did. And we did it as good or better than anybody else in the United States, right up until the day they shuttered the plant.
HORSLEY: The plant closed in 2001. It was a tough time for the steel industry, and a lot of plants shut down. But Box says Romney's company didn't help by taking on so much debt.
BOX: You know, these people have never produced one thing in their lives, other than shuffle one pile of money into the next pile of money, you know. What do they know about reality?
HORSLEY: Workers lost severance pay, health insurance, and saw their pensions cut. But Bain still walked away with millions of dollars in profit. According to the L.A. Times, four of the top 10 companies Bain invested in on Romney's watch ultimately filed for bankruptcy. Bain still made a profit on three of them.
HOWARD ANDERSON: It's a wonderful business in good times and it's a pretty good business in bad times.
HORSLEY: That's MIT Professor Howard Anderson, who's followed Bain's business for years.
ANDERSON: What Bain Capital was in the business of doing was increasing the wealth of their investors. In some cases it meant expanding companies and growing. In some cases they may have eliminated jobs. Job growth was never the goal. Job growth was the byproduct.
HORSLEY: Bain's success gave Romney a personal fortune and a campaign storyline. Some of the workers who were left behind are now giving his opponents ammunition.
Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.
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