GOP race takes dramatic turn as rivals open fire on Romney

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, campaigns at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H., Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
Mitt Romney in New Hampshire
Mitt Romney, campaigns at Gilchrist Metal Fabricating in Hudson, N.H., Jan. 9, 2012.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The campaign for the Republican nomination has taken a dramatic turn today, with Mitt Romney's GOP challengers turning on him as a ruthless -- and heartless -- corporate executive who destroyed jobs and lives.

That line of attack mirrors the Democratic assault against Romney and was expected in the general election -- not the primary. Until now, his Republican competitors have attacked him for being too moderate. Today, they're pummeling him from the left -- sparking a firestorm of criticism from fiscal conservatives who say the GOP is playing into President Obama's hands.

The attack focuses not only on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital, but also on comments he made today and yesterday. This morning, Romney-- defending his record before a friendly Chamber of Commerce crowd -- said he likes "being able to fire people who provide services to me... You know, if someone doesn't give me a good service that I need, I want to say, 'I'm going to go get someone else to provide that service to me.'"

Yesterday, trying to connect with voters, he said he knew what it was like to worry about getting a pink slip.

Today, three of his rivals so far have pounced: Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman said Romney "enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs." Perry said Romney was "getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else." And on Romney's worry of a pink slip, Perry said Romney probably was worried he'd run out of them.

It was a tough new movie by a super PAC supporting Gingrich that appears to have triggered the shift in tone. The movie's trailer portrays Romney as a corporate raider motivated by greed who exploited businesses and lives. It focuses on companies that were downsized or closed when Bain took them over -- and features laid-off workers saying things like, "That was a man that destroyed us."

Push back was immediate. The front page of the Boston Herald has this headline: "Newt Goes Nuclear: Crybaby Gingrich's Attacks on Romney Could Cost GOP Election." And the conservative blogs have erupted over this clash about Republican principles of competition and Free Enterprise -- all on the eve of the nation's first primary.

Gingrich says he's going negative in S.C.
Mitt Romney: "I like being able to fire people" for bad service
Full coverage: Campaign 2012

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    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.