With Nomination Almost in Reach, Romney Looks to Bury Gingrich Again in South Carolina

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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally on January 17, 2012 in Florence, South Carolina.

Spartanburg, South Carolina

With just days until the South Carolina primary looming as the last real hurdle on his march to the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney is trying to ward off a late charge from Newt Gingrich by raising questions about Gingrich’s leadership as House speaker, his ability to spur economic growth and his attacks on free enterprise.

At a rally on Wednesday morning in the upstate conservative stronghold of Spartanburg, Romney blistered the former House Speaker for criticizing Romney’s stewardship of the private-equity firm Bain Capital, which Gingrich has accused of “looting” companies in which it invested. Romney cast the argument, which has also been echoed by Texas governor Rick Perry, as a page from the Democratic playbook.

(MORE: TIME/CNN Poll: Romney Still Top Dog, but Gingrich Gaining in South Carolina)

“I was disappointed over the last couple of weeks to see one of my opponents attacking free enterprise just like the President was,” Romney told a crowd massed outside the field house at Wofford College on a brisk, sunny morning. “Free enterprise is under attack from the right and from the left. We’ve got to stop it.”

Romney, who has made his business credentials the cornerstone of his campaign for the presidency, also tweaked Gingrich’s claim that as a congressman he was instrumental in the job growth the nation saw during the Reagan Administration. “A congressman taking responsibility for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet,” Romney joked.

Though seasoned with a dose of levity, the jab was part of a barrage of attacks Romney’s campaign has launched at Gingrich this week in hopes of neutralizing Gingrich’s momentum after a strong Monday night debate. In a conference call Wednesday morning, Susan Molinari, a Romney supporter who served under Gingrich in the House, unloaded on her former colleague. “I can only describe his style as leadership by chaos,” she said. Former Senator Jim Talent, another Romney proxy, presaged Romney’s criticism by blasting Gingrich for using “the language of the left.”

The broadsides may call up a feeling of deja vu for Gingrich, who was ahead in Iowa in December before Romney spearheaded an onslaught of negative ads that erased his lead. Now, with the former House Speaker looming as a threat in a southern state where a sizable bloc of conservatives are bent on forestalling Romney’s push for the nomination, Romney is bidding to bury Gingrich again. In Greenville, a Romney robocall targeted Gingrich for his views on illegal immigration, while Romney’s campaign unveiled a new web ad that castigates Gingrich as an “undisciplined” leader who could torpedo the GOP’s hopes of ousting Obama. Once again, Gingrich has the been the target of more negative attacks than any of his Republican rivals — even as Romney carries a double-digit lead into the final days before the Palmetto State’s pivotal Jan. 21 primary.

The negative blitz follows a rough stretch for Romney, who was rattled in Monday night’s debate and criticized for having withheld the release of his tax returns. Pressed by Gingrich and Perry, Romney said Tuesday that he would likely do so in April — after he ostensibly wraps up the nomination, but with plenty of time for any revelations they contain to fade by November.

The issue is a potentially perilous one for Romney, who said Tuesday that his effective tax rate hovered around 15%, far less than most members of the U.S. middle class pay. Such a rate would be in line with that paid by many other wealthy individuals who derive the bulk of their income from investments. But it provides a potentially problematic contrast for Romney–whose net worth has been estimated at up to $250 million–to pay a lower rate than less affluent Americans. “How can he go and try to change the tax system if he isn’t paying enough himself?” asks Vivian McAbee, an undecided voter from Spartanburg who has narrowed her choice to Romney and Gingrich. “If he has nothing to hide, why not release it now? It’s going to burn him if he doesn’t.”

With an 11-point lead in a Tuesday poll released by Monmouth University and the state’s evangelical bloc still splintered, there may not be time for Romney to get singed before Saturday. And like the attacks on Bain, some supporters consider the tax issue an asset. Wally Harper, a retired physician from Greenville who voted for John McCain four years ago but thinks Romney has the pedigree to prop up an economy that has sagged since then, said the kerfuffle over taxes was unlikely to damage the former Massachusetts governor among fiscal conservatives who form the core of his support base here. “If he were not paying only 15%, then I would question whether he’s capable of running the country,” Harper says.