Romney 2012 Buzz Vulnerable Despite Debate

BOSTON (TheStreet) -- Mitt Romney strode through Monday's debate in New Hampshire with Republican hopefuls without actually debating anything or giving voters any sense of how his arguments would hold up under fire.

Fortunately for critics of candidate Romney, there are plenty of opportunities for rebuttal.

Many called Mitt Romney the winner in a Monday debate of Republican presidential hopefuls, but he'll face a different kind of questions and challenges before November 2012.

The former Massachusetts governor was roundly declared the winner of Monday's debate by observers for the mere fact that he didn't give up any ground. He basically ignored the rest of the GOP field and jumped right to President Barack Obama, saying "I can't wait to debate him." He vowed to tear down Obama's health care plan with nary a word about the similar plan he constructed during his tenure in Massachusetts. Most impressively, he scared that plan's most vocal critic -- former Minnesota Gov. Tim "Obamneycare" Pawlenty -- into guarded silence on the topic before pronouncing that "everyone on this stage would be a better president than Obama."

Richard Parker, co-founder of Mother Jones magazine and public policy lecturer at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, doubts Romney's path to the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination will always be this smooth. An economist and former consultant to Congressional clients including Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., John Glenn, D-Ohio, Alan Cranston, D-Calif., and George McGovern, D-S.D., Parker feels Romney is a lot more vulnerable than his bulletproof debate performance let on and that his business dealings and personal fortune may play as big a role in his campaign as his political views.

TheStreet spoke with Parker about Romney, his years with Bain & Co. and Bain Capital and his identity as a business-minded candidate in the current political and economic climate and found a few potential pitfalls for the GOP frontrunner once the pleasantries die down and his opponents start picking away:

What do Romney's Bain Capital-era investments in companies such as Staples (SPLS) and acquisitions of companies such as Domino's (DPZ) and Sealy (ZZ) say about Romney as a businessman and candidate?

Parker: He's been involved with acquisitions for years through Bain Capital. He made hundreds of millions of dollars while there. When he ran against Sen. Kennedy in 1994, the Kennedy people were able to dig up an acquisition he had made at a paper supply company, Ampad, where there had been extensive layoffs. And one of the things Romney had asserted is that he hadn't been that kind of slash-and-burn operator when, in fact, he had.

This is an industry, this acquisition-and-go-private model, that has grown up since the 1980s and, by and large, revolves around a very simple formula: Buy with borrowed money, load the borrowed money onto the balance sheet of the acquired firm, cut costs -- which usually means cutting labor costs -- and go back public in a few years thereafter and cash out there. It's not clear to me that they are success stories in terms of long-term, healthier companies, but it's become a favored way to make money.

How will that background work to his advantage and what are its potential perils?

Parker: He's going to keep saying that he's been an extremely successful businessman, which is a strategy that Republicans and not a few Democrats have always claimed as a superior life experience to serving in politics. I think the fact that he plays hard and yet there's not a paper trail of overtly felonious behavior means he'll have a story to tell.

When he was running the last time, I thought that he was quite reluctant to reveal his actual net worth, which I thought would have been very interesting to know more about. I think he'll have to be quite clear about where, broadly, a lot of his wealth has come from, and that is going to be very interesting to see.

Do the differing estimates of his fortune that fall between $190 million to $300 million matter?

Parker: It's a rounding error in my life. Do you find that a large number? You'd take the low end if offered, right?

Is business experience necessarily beneficial when seeking the presidency?

Parker: There is no particular history of businessmen making great presidents. We don't have a tradition -- certainly not a 20th and 21st century tradition -- of people who come from business being superlative. I suppose George W. Bush is someone who rode the story of being a businessman. The one prior to him would have been Herbert Hoover. And both left office having handed the country a fairly large financial crisis.

Of the business leaders who rose to prominence during Romney's era, is Romney the only one with realistic presidential aspirations?

Parker: You can look at a book like Jeff Madrick's Age of Greed and you say to yourself 'Who would that be?' Would it be Mike Milken? Would it be Henry Kravis? Who on that list of successful businesspeople who's adept at the leveraged buyout would be appropriate? None of them are builders in the classic sense of John D. Rockefeller or Henry Ford building from scratch. They've all used finance, which is the great characteristic of the last 30 years, to make these great killings.

I really am hard-pressed to say who in that pantheon one would choose. I think there would be a sentimental favor for Warren Buffett, but he shows absolutely no interest in holding public office. Steve Jobs? I don't think so. Governor of California, yeah, but ...

How would a rival debate the merits of Romney's business success in the context of its potential to help the American public?

Parker: I think the question to ask someone like Romney isn't how much money you've made, but how many new jobs, net, did your companies create? And see if he can answer the question.

Unless you think that the construction of villas in Aspen or Vail create high-wage construction jobs -- which is one way to look at it -- the problem is that the strongest argument for the business community is that it creates jobs. Decently paid jobs with tenure and benefits. That hasn't been characteristic of these kinds of operators over the last 30 years.

I suspect that Democratic candidates' opposition research has already lined up a lot of the answers to that question. I'd bet the DNC already knows how many jobs were created by Bain & Co. over the last 20 years.

Considering the rise of the tea party's platform and libertarian ideals during the past few years, is Romney still an ideal fit for the Republican nomination?

Parker: In some way, he's probably positioned well for making the race in the Republican Party as these other folks self-destruct and withdraw. With Sarah Palin as another choice, I'd assume that a lot of the party elders are going to pull behind someone like Romney or Jon Huntsman to save them from ignominy.

Certainly the tea party is not sympathetic to Romney, but when the Republicans have to figure out who is electable vs. who appeals to their conservative wing, Romney is in better shape. I think the Rand Paul/Sarah Palin/Western libertarian crowd is just not going to make it to a majority win in 2012.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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