MANCHESTER, N.H. -- In the span of 24 hours, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has gone from saying he worried, in the past, about being laid off from a job to explaining that he enjoyed having the option of firing companies that performed poor services.
Both statements have proven problematic for the New Hampshire frontrunner, with several of his rivals jumping at the chance to hack away at his lead in the run-up to Tuesday's vote.
"I had to shake my head yesterday when one of the wealthiest men, I suppose, that's ever run for the presidency of the United States -- the son of a multimillionaire -- Mitt Romney, he said, 'I know what its like to worry about whether you're going to get fired," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said during a stop in South Carolina. "'There were a couple of times when I wondered whether I was going to get a pink slip.' He actually said this. Now, I have no doubt that Mitt Romney was worried about pink slips, whether he was going to have enough of them to hand out."
Speaking in New Hampshire moments later, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman went after Romney's other remark. "What's clear is he likes firing people," Huntsman said. "I like creating jobs."
Soon after that, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a more macro approach, focusing squarely on Rommey's time at Bain Capital rather than on any one individual statement.
"Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful or rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money? Or is that, in fact, somehow, a little bit of a flawed system," he said to a packed audience of reporters in Manchester. "So I do draw a distinction between looting a company, leaving behind broken families and broken neighborhoods and leaving behind a factory that should be there."
One candidate, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), declined to join his fellow competitors in their criticism.
"My feeling is that if Gov. Romney did some things that were out of line for the kind of business he was in, that's one thing," he told reporters after a town hall meeting in Salem, N.H. on Monday morning. "But look, if the governor's involved in the private sector in trying to buy companies, I'm sure that most of the companies he tried to buy he wanted to make profitable and in some cases it didn't work. ... I think he's got a lot more about his record as governor to talk about than his record at Bain Capital."
When asked whether Romney's time at Bain will be a liability, Santorum replied, "I'm not making it a liability."
Santorum aside, the comments amounted to a massive pile-on from a group of candidates eager to knock Romney down a notch from his still-comfortable perch atop the polls.
Romney won the Iowa caucuses, beating Santorum by a razor-thin margin, and has led here in the Granite State since the start of the primary season. Before his miscues, there were already signs that he was slipping in the polls, especially in one conducted by Suffolk University poll, which showed him drop more than 10 points from a high of 43 percent in less than a week. But the University of New Hampshire's Sunday poll showed Romney remaining at 41 percent. None of the polls show Romney's closest challenger, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) above 20 percent.
In New Hampshire on Sunday, Romney insisted that he knew "what it's like to worry about whether you're going to get fired," adding that there were several instances when he wondered "if I was going to get a pink slip." Romney's campaign hasn't responded to requests for clarification on his remarks, and aides have yet to point to one of those instances.
On Monday, Romney said, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me if someone doesn't give me the service I need."
With the statement, Romney wasn't expressing a lust for firing people but, rather, a desire to bring competition into the health care industry.
And yet, Romney's surrogates immediately went into overdrive to try and beat back the assault from the rest of the field. Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu told HuffPost that he thought Perry's remarks, in particular, made him sound like a socialist.
"The comment sounded like it came from Obama's camp," he said. "You get anti-free enterprise comments from socialists whether they are Republicans or Democrats."
The Romney campaign quickly issued separate statements to respond to their Republican opponents and to Democrats.
“It is no surprise that, having spent nearly half a century in government between them, Speaker Gingrich and Governor Perry have resorted to desperate attacks on a subject they don’t understand," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "We expect attacks on free enterprise from President Obama and his allies on the left – not from so-called ‘fiscal conservatives.’ Speaker Gingrich and Governor Perry seem to think that running against the private sector is the way to revive their floundering campaigns."
Democrats, meanwhile, released a video clipping Romney's statement to show him saying only, "I like being able to fire people," and scheduled a conference call with Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to highlight the statement.
In response, Saul told HuffPost that "Democrats will distort and misrepresent anything to distract voters from President Obama's failure to create jobs."
The Romney campaign's ability to push back against distortion of their candidate's comments will be hamstrung, though, by the fact that it similarly took a comment by Obama out of context in a TV campaign ad in November.
UPDATE: 1:55 p.m. -- Following a midday event at a steel plant in Hudson, Romney was forced to hold a press conference to explain his comments.
"Things can always be taken out of context and I understand that that's what the Obama people will do," Romney said, reiterating that his comments that he liked "being able to fire people" were referencing the need to introduce choice into health care for consumers.
"We should be able to choose the insurance company of our choice. We should not have to have one foisted upon us by the president and Obamacare," he said.
When asked about Gingrich's attacks, his response dripped with scorn: "Gee, I thought he apologized for going after my record at Bain. Wasn't that just a couple of weeks ago? So he apologized for that and now he's decided to make that a centerpiece."
"Well, I'm not going to worry about that. As we'll find out, free enterprise will be on trial," he said. "I thought it was going to come from the president and from the Democrats, the left, but instead it's coming from Speaker Gingrich and apparently others."
When Romney was asked if he was out of touch with the concerns of regular voters, he responded sharply.
"If you think that I should spend my entire campaign carefully choosing how everything I say relates to people, as opposed to saying my own experience and telling my own experience, that would make me a very different person than I am," he said. "I'm going to tell people my own experiences in life, and I realize they're not the same as everybody else."
Yet though Romney hit Democrats for taking his comments out of context, he acknowledged that such attacks were to be expected in politics -- a tacit admission that he knew he had made a tonal mistake.
"I understand that in politics, people are going to try to grasp at anything taken out of context and make it something it's not," he said. "And by the way, that's the nature of the process. I've got to be an adult about it and recognize that goes with the territory."
Amanda Terkel contributed reporting.