The opening days of Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination have revealed a stark contrast between his approach to reviving the economy and that of the presumed front-runner, Mitt Romney.
Each candidate pitches himself as the one with the skills and experience necessary to create jobs, the issue that voters consider paramount. But their records as job creators are very different, as are most other aspects of their biographies.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, boasts of a 25-year career in the private sector — he calls it “the real economy” — helping restructure businesses. Perry highlights his decade as governor, in particular the past two years, in which Texas has accounted for at least one-third of the jobs created in the United States.
Romney’s view of the economy is shaped by his time as a management consultant and venture capitalist. Perry’s frame of reference is his family’s cotton farm and his state’s oil and gas boom.
As Romney and Perry campaigned Wednesday in New Hampshire, the question before Republican voters was this: Which credential is a better match for the moment — growing a business yourself or shaping an environment in which businesses can grow?
Some experts said that both experiences are valuable but that neither is a perfect fit. What matters more, they said, is whether the candidates have sound proposals to deal with the country’s big problems.
“Both private- and public-sector experience are helpful, but that’s the wrong debate,” said Allan B. Hubbard, a former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush. “They’re both going to have very different hands if they’re elected in 2012. We all know what the hand is. What would they do? That’s what they need to be talking about.”
So far, they’re not. Despite both candidates’ focus on the economy, neither has offered more than standard Republican positions.
For months, Romney has said he will create jobs by lowering taxes, easing regulations and drawing on his private-sector experience. But he has offered no details on what taxes, what regulations or what experience would lead to job growth.
“Our regulation, our bureaucracy, our tax rates are so much higher than other countries,” Romney said Wednesday as he toured a steel plant in Berlin, N.H. “The right answer for America is to get government smaller.”
The launch of Perry’s campaign has been nothing if not candid — he has been brash about criticizing President Obama and the Federal Reserve, among other targets — but he has avoided saying much of anything specific about how he would manage the nation’s teetering economy.
“My actions as governor are helping create jobs in this country,” Perry said Wednesday in New Hampshire, where he attended the storied Politics and Eggs forum and a roundtable of business leaders. “The president’s actions are killing jobs in this country. It’s time to get America working again.”
Of that last line, Perry added, “People will hear me say this over and over.”
Perry’s entry has jolted the Republican contest, for the first time putting Romney on the defensive over the very credentials that he thinks could win him the party’s nomination. So far, Romney has shown no desire to engage his Republican rivals, emphasizing his business acumen instead and focusing on Obama.
But in Perry, Romney has a strong — and strongly credentialed — opponent with a history of being a tough campaigner, one who has vilified his rivals.
As he toured the Iowa State Fair on Monday, Perry took umbrage at the idea that Romney was the only top candidate with “private-sector experience,” even referring by name to the private equity firm Romney founded.
“I was in the private sector for 13 years after I left the Air Force,” Perry said, recalling his time running the family farm. “You know, I wasn’t on Wall Street. I wasn’t working at Bain Capital. But the principles of the free market, they work whether you’re in a farm field in Iowa or whether you’re on Wall Street.”
Asked about the Romney talking point that he knows “the real economy,” Perry said, “I’m thinking Texas is the real economy.”
Perry’s chief strategist, David Carney, went further, suggesting in an interview that the Perry campaign would try to cast Romney as a heartless hedge fund executive.
“I don’t think the country is looking for somebody to be a buyout specialist,” Carney said.
Romney has shown little eagerness to assail the contest’s newest entrant. Instead, he continues to attack Obama as a way of making veiled attacks on Perry, who has held elective office since 1985.
“I’ve spent 25 years in business,” Romney said Tuesday as he toured an elevator company in Merrimack, N.H. “I don’t have all the answers, but I know how to get them. In business, things are very unforgiving. You make bad mistakes and you’ll be gone. In government, you make bad mistakes and you just kick the can down the road and expect somebody else to pay for it, or blame the opposite party.”
It is too early to tell which argument will sway voters more.
“It’s a close call,” said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist who advised Romney in 2008 but has remained neutral in the current contest. “If you ask Republicans who’s a better jobmaker, a businessman or a politician, advantage businessman. . . . I’d have to give a slight edge not to the guy who held the ladder but the guy who climbed it.”
Not surprising, Romney and Perry emphasize those aspects of their records that are most favorable to them.
Romney talks more about his business career than his four years as governor of Massachusetts, when the state’s job-creation record was among the worst in the nation. The state did add jobs, about 1 percent, but it bested only Louisiana, devastated by Hurricane Katrina, and Michigan and Ohio, both beset by declines in manufacturing.
Romney says he knows firsthand why businesses fail and why they succeed. But his record as chief executive of Bain Capital is a double-edged sword. Although he is partially responsible for big success stories — for instance, the founding of Staples, the office supplies superstore — he also was involved in controversial decisions, including the laying off of hundreds of workers.
Perry boasts that low taxes and loose regulations unleashed entrepreneurship in his state. But some experts have asked whether the “Texas miracle” might have less to do with Perry’s political leadership than with a boom in the state’s oil and gas industries and with population growth that has outpaced that of other states.
The Texas story is not quite as glowing as Perry tells it, either. A quarter of Texans lack health-care coverage, the highest rate in the country. The state ranks 47th in the nation in per-pupil spending on public education and has the highest levels of toxic chemicals released into the water and carcinogens released into the air.
As Perry and Romney begin to exploit each other’s vulnerabilities, they may give Obama an advantage by revealing what lines of attack work against them and how the candidates respond to them.
Romney’s advisers, keenly aware that voters are frustrated by politics as usual, have begun casting Perry as a career politician. But if the label is correct, Perry has successfully positioned himself as an anti-government political outsider. And Perry’s advisers are presenting his decades in government as an attribute, even though that sort of experience has become a pox on many politicians.
“He’s actually gotten elected, been successful and turned Texas into a job-creating machine,” Carney said. “We tried electing somebody who had no experience in government, and this is what we got.”
Staff Writer Krissah Thompson contributed to this report.