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Mitt Romney defends Perdue from 2012-style outsourcing attacks

Mitt Romney and David Perdue probably had a lot to talk about before their joint rally on Wednesday.
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, right, embraces Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue during a campaign event. on Oct. 29, 2014, in Augusta, Ga. (David Goldman/AP)
Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, right, embraces Georgia Republican U.S. Senate candidate David Perdue during a campaign event. on Oct. 29, 2014, in Augusta, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Georgia -- Mitt Romney and David Perdue probably had a lot to talk about before their joint rally on Wednesday. 

The Georgia Republican Senate candidate’s political biography reads like a miniature history of Romney’s last presidential run. Perdue, a successful CEO at companies like Reebok and Dollar General, emerged from a tough conservative primary by running on a promise to apply his private sector know-how to fix President Obama’s alleged failings in Washington.

At a rally alongside Romney, Perdue attacked the president for encouraging voters to support his Democratic opponent, Michelle Nunn. 

“The arrogance of this guy, coming into Georgia on our radio station in Atlanta and saying you got to elect Michelle Nunn because I need her in Washington to continue my policies to do good for America,” Perdue told a crowd of several dozen supporters, referring to a recent interview by the president. “Not on my watch.”

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Romney, in what felt like a throwback to his 2012 run, used his own comments to attack Hillary Clinton, whom he referred to as a “certain leading Democrat,” for saying "Don't let anybody tell you that it's corporations and businesses that create jobs” in a recent speech. The quote, which Clinton has since said was actually about tax breaks for businesses, had drawn comparisons to Obama’s “You didn’t build that” line, which Romney repeated endlessly on the presidential trail.

"I happen to know that businesses and corporations aren't the only places that create jobs, I’m sure there a couple of other places somewhere, but in fact they do create jobs and David knows how to do that,” Romney said.

Just like Romney, however, Perdue has found that his business background cuts both ways.

In 2012 Obama seized on Romney’s work at Bain Capital to accuse his rival of turning a profit for investors at companies that eventually went bankrupt and investing in others that engaged in outsourcing. This year, Democratic opponent Michelle Nunn has hammered Perdue daily over outsourcing, bankruptcies and alleged misconduct at his former companies. Republicans credit those attacks with making the race competitive.

In an interview with msnbc, Perdue predicted the outsourcing claims wouldn't resonate as strongly with voters in the Georgia race in part because they'd been tried already.

“That’s what they did against Romney,” Perdue said. “I think people are paying attention to it this time. They’ve had so much of it now they say ‘Wait a minute, I’ve seen this before.’”

Perdue said his response to the attacks was to “talk about the issues Georgians are concerned about: debt, the economy and jobs.”

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The 2012 parallels were clear enough that when Romney met with reporters after Wednesday’s rally, all but one of the questions were about Nunn's outsourcing jabs.

“That kind of baloney gets thrown around towards the end of a campaign, whether it’s mine or it’s David’s, and I think the people of Georgia pretty much rejected it in 2012 when I was running,” Romney said. The Republican bested Obama by 53-45% in Georgia in 2012.

“I think they’re going to reject it again," Romney said. "People understand enterprises, businesses of all kinds, they build and grow jobs.” 

Still, some Georgia Republicans are starting to get the sense they’ve seen this movie before. National Democratic groups have even labeled Perdue “Romney lite” and “Georgia’s very own Mitt Romney” in press releases. 

“It’s like (Nunn's) running against Romney,” Maria Zack, who owns several small businesses, told msnbc at a Perdue rally in Gainesville. “Perdue has a great comprehension of what it takes to run a business and she’s a community organizer. We have one of those in the White House, how did that work out for us?” 

Like Romney, Perdue has absorbed some intra-party criticism for his language around the issue. His initial response to the attacks, which like Romney’s were brought up by his Republican primary opponents first, was to defend some outsourcing decisions as necessary to rescue the company in question. The issue died down, but got new life last month after a 2005 deposition emerged in which Perdue said he spent “most of my career” working on outsourcing issues. The quote quickly made it into Nunn’s ads, along with Perdue’s initial response to the story.

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“Defend it? I’m proud of it,” he told reporters after the news broke. “This is a part of American business, part of any business. Outsourcing is the procurement of products and services to help your business run. People do that all day.”

Perdue’s side has argued that the word “outsourcing” has been used too broadly and often meant using other companies to perform tasks rather than closing down production in American and moving it overseas. But Todd Rehm, a Republican consultant in the state, told msnbc he thought the comments made it harder to recover from the initial story. 

“It allowed them to portray him as Gordan Gekko figure and he gave them that,” Rehm said.

After it was pointed out the “Gordon Gekko” label was often applied to Romney, Rehm wordlessly pulled out his smartphone and held up a photo from Perdue’s Facebook page featuring the candidate in jeans and a crisp dress shirt. It was the exact uniform Romney wore throughout his 2012 run and, right on cue, the former presidential nominee arrived in the same clothes on Wednesday.  

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Georgia's Senate contest is one of several competitive races where Democrats are employing attacks on candidates' past business practices reminiscent of 2012. In Illinois, they’ve dragged Republican gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner down in the polls with ads targeting his personal wealth and involvement in companies that laid off workers. In New Hampshire, Democrats have targeted Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown for serving on the board of a paper supplier that moved manufacturing overseas.

“The outsourcing issue is what stung Romney the most,” Brad Woodhouse, president of American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC pushing the issue this year, told msnbc. “It’s a question of whether you can empathize with voters. Especially, in the South it’s so real to people who watched what happened to the textile industry.”

Eric Tanenblatt, who has raised money for Perdue and served as Romney’s national finance co-chair in 2012, thought efforts to tie the two politicians together would backfire.

“Georgia is not the whole country, you have to understand that Mitt Romney won Georgia by 8%,” he said. “If you try to say David Perdue has some similarities to Mitt Romney that doesn’t mean there’s some stigma to him. Romney is still well liked.” 

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Just as Democrats are eager to tie Perdue to Romney’s vulnerabilities, one of Perdue's top priorities in his race is getting voters to associate Nunn’s campaign with Obama, whose low approval ratings continue to present problems for Democratic candidates.

Nunn’s approach certainly borrows from Obama’s political playbook in its combination of relentless attacks with an optimistic message of bipartisan cooperation, two ideas that can fall into conflict.  Perdue has tried to make this connection explicit at times.

“You know this is the same bill of goods we were sold in 2008 and 2012 by President Obama when he said I’ll bring you all together, I’ll work with the other party in a bipartisan way,” he said in Sunday’s debate after Nunn said she’d bring a “spirit of moderation” to the Senate.

Polls indicate a tight race, with several recent surveys showing a small lead for Nunn and several others for Perdue. Perdue got encouraging news today from a Monmouth poll showing him up 49-41, but there’s still a strong likelihood that neither candidate cracks 50% on Tuesday thanks to Libertarian Amanda Swafford’s participation in the race, sending Perdue and Nunn into a January runoff.