It is the time for holier-than-thou candidates to throw their “higher tone” hymnal overboard and go for the jugular. Tim Pawlenty (to the dismay of some of his most effective supporters) is going after Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) And Jon Huntsman, who seemed to base much of his campaign on eschewing negativity, is now attacking Mitt Romney. Not well. But he is.

Yesterday, as CNN reported, Huntsman attacked Romney on jobs:

Huntsman, debuting a new line, questioned Romney’s record on job creation while serving in Massachusetts and contrasted it with his own resume.

“When you look at the absolute increases in job creation, Utah led the way in the United States in terms of job creation,” he said. “That compared and contrasted with certain other states like Massachusetts, which I will just pull out randomly, not first, but 47th.”

Moments earlier, he said: “Some are running from their record. I am running on my record. Take a look at what we have done.”

When I asked the Romney campaign for comment, Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul replied: “Mitt Romney created nearly 50,000 jobs as governor of Massachusetts and led his state to one of the most dramatic job market turnarounds in the country.”

She points to Bureau of Labor stats showing that the unemployment rate fell from 5.6 percent to 4.7 percent. BLS reported:

Between January 2003 and December 2006, Massachusetts was one of seventeen states to accelerate its job growth every year and one of only two states to accelerate its job growth by at least 20,000 each year. Massachusetts was one of the top ten most-improved states (seventh overall) in terms of job creation, going from 49th in the nation in the first year of the Romney Administration to 36th in the nation in the last year.

It is an odd attack by Huntsman, one for which Romney has a rather convincing defense. Huntsman, according to the same BLS stats, with a much smaller labor force than Massachusetts, added slightly more than 100,000 jobs. However, in his second term, as the economic crisis hit, the state went from 5. 8 percent unemployment to 7.4 percent unemployment.

Why is Huntsman making this argument? Well, Huntsman can’t very well go after Romney on his greatest weakness, RomneyCare, because Huntsman’s record in that regard isn’t so great either. Last month, Huffington Post reported:

Huntsman, as a 2007 interview shows, more than just considered a [individual] mandate. He supported one publicly. According to a transcript, the then-governor said, “ I think if you’re going to get it done and get it done right, [a] mandate has to be part of it in some way, shape, or form.”

The former governor, who on Tuesday announced he was running for president, has since sought to sweep that moment under the rug. In a video accompanying his formal announcement, the narrator pointedly criticized the idea that individuals should be mandated to purchase health care coverage.

After speaking to a group of voters in Exeter, N. H., the Huffington Post asked Huntsman whether it was fair to make the mandate a campaign issue when he once sympathized with the idea. He acknowledged that he had, indeed, considered a mandate. “It would be a dereliction of duty not to,” he said.

But he insisted, as he had before, that he never explicitly pushed the provision.

In other words, Huntsman’s own record (on health care, support for cap-and-trade) suggests he is far less conservative than Romney. In fact, his appeal to the punditocracy has been as some sort of ideological maverick. Alas, that doesn’t play when you are running in a Republican primary. So he’s relegated to trying to highlight other differences. Unfortunately for him, the contrast on job creation just isn’t that effective.