01/03/2012 05:57 pm ET Updated Jan 03, 2012

Jon Huntsman: Mitt Romney Would Be An Agent For The Big Banks

LEBANON, N.H. -- Hoping to establish a competitive position once the Republican presidential primary contest shifts its focus from Iowa to New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman sharply criticized Mitt Romney on Tuesday, saying the frontrunner would be an agent for Wall Street and protector of the status quo if elected.

In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, the former Utah governor challenged Romney to prove his independence from the financial sector's biggest players.

"It is not necessarily about the history of his involvement on Wall Street," Huntsman said, shortly after addressing a room full of doctors and other medical employees at Dartmouth Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H. "It is the fact that he has raised so much money from the large banks, the banks that need to be right-sized. If you are the largest recipient of funds from Wall Street, and in particular the large banks, you are not going to be inclined to want to change that model. Because those who run those banks want no change, they profit off the status quo and clearly they are not going to be inclined to want to bring about any change."

Aides to Romney declined to respond to the charge, underscoring the extent to which they feel unthreatened by Huntsman's current position in the polls. They also appear to be confident that voters are not bothered by the composition of Romney's donor base -- and perhaps with good reason. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Romney has raised $7.8 million from the finance, insurance, and real estate industries, or 24 percent of the $32 million he has raised in the first three quarters of 2011. Huntsman, meanwhile, received $467,000 from finance, insurance, and real estate donors. While that figure is far smaller than the amount Romney received, it also represents 21 percent of the total donations Huntsman raked in during that time period.

But it's not just Romney's money that the Huntsman campaign is hoping to turn into a liability. An aide to the Utah Republican argued that Romney has no real plan to deal with certain institutions being too big to fail, and said Romney admitted that much in an interview with Real Clear Politics last week:

Asked, for instance, whether a President Romney would allow a financial institution as large as Bank of America or Citigroup to fail in a hypothetical crisis, he first emphasized that he “would not suggest that some institutions should be free from the prospect of the bankruptcy courts.”

But after reiterating that he doesn’t support bailing out individual institutions, Romney left himself some leeway.

“Obviously, I will look at the circumstances that might exist in the future,” he said.

Huntsman, by contrast, has argued for banks to be reduced in size, and for stricter limits to be placed on the type of financial activities they can undertake.

"I want those banks to be down where they were in the 1990s, where if they screw up, if they get sick, they can fail. They won't bring all of us down with them," he explained to the crowd of medical professionals. "We need a president, ladies and gentlemen, who is going to take on the banking sector."

Asked about that plan in an interview with The Huffington Post last week, Romney argued that the way to fundamentally resolve the issue of institutions being too big to fail was to change the structure of the banking system at large.

"I believe that institutions have the capacity to go through bankruptcy if necessary to reorganize their obligations," Romney said. "I think what happened in 2008 was not a matter of one bank, Lehman Brothers, having caused the entire collapse. I think the matter was that we had a massive problem in our economy, which was precipitated by the subprime mortgage crisis, that threatened not just one or two banks but threatened the entire banking sector, our entire financial services sector. And that was a setting very different than that that would be caused by one institution getting in trouble."