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Jan. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich tried to reframe his assault on Mitt Romney’s investment background amid calls from Republican commentators, rivals in the presidential race and business leaders to tone down his attacks as both men cast an eye on Florida, the biggest state with a primary this month.
Gingrich has been the most aggressive of the Republican candidates in questioning Romney’s work as a private-equity executive at Boston-based Bain Capital LLC. The former U.S. House speaker said yesterday he wants to focus on a larger critique of Wall Street bailouts.
“We the taxpayers deserve some kind of accounting for where all those billions and billions of dollars went,” he told about 150 people at a senior-citizen event in Columbia, South Carolina. “So I have been asking some questions. It’s almost as though if you ask questions you’re somehow challenging the whole system.”
Criticism of Romney’s business record also cost Texas Governor Rick Perry an endorsement, as a variety of Republicans and some past Romney critics rallied around the race’s front- runner.
“You can’t be on both sides of free market capitalism,” Barry Wynn, a top South Carolina fundraiser and president of the investment management firm Colonial Group Inc., said in switching his support to Romney.
Romney looked beyond South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary by spending part of yesterday campaigning in Florida, site of a Jan. 31 contest. Gingrich was scheduled to do the same today.
Wins by Romney in South Carolina and Florida, on the heels of his victories in this month’s opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, would put him on a path to quickly wrap up the Republican nomination.
Gingrich’s changed tone after having questioned whether Bain’s acquisition practices were akin to “looting a company” came amid a growing chorus of Republicans and business leaders deploring his attacks.
“I’m disappointed with the intramural carrying on,” Tom Donohue, president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said at a news conference yesterday in Washington. “This economy is about risk. If you don’t take a risk, you cannot have a success. It’s foolish for Republicans to carry on that line of attack because they do nothing but set up the ads for their opponents.”
Gingrich defended himself yesterday in a Fox News interview against the notion he has disparaged the free-market system.
“We’re not talking about the system,” he said. “We’re talking about somebody who is running for president of the United States. And we’re asking the question about his judgment, his values, the choices he made.”
He said there are “a series of cases that don’t look right,” as he mentioned companies that went bankrupt after Bain invested in them.
“How come the big boys made a lot of money and they went broke?” he asked. “That’s not an attack on capitalism.”
Gingrich, 68, also called Romney someone who is trying to “pretend he’s a conservative.”
U.S. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee who has endorsed Romney, denounced Gingrich for such remarks in a separate Fox News interview.
“To go after him on what is really the essence of what we Republicans believe in about the economy I think is a serious mistake,” said McCain. “It’s the last resort of a very desperate campaign.”
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who finished second in South Carolina’s 2008 Republican primary, criticized Gingrich for handing Democrats lines of attack.
“If you are going to go after someone in the primary, just remember that you are in essence feeding ammunition,” he said on Fox News.
Huckabee, who hosts a weekend show on Fox news, said the questions Gingrich raised also open him to additional scrutiny over his private business dealings and consulting work for Freddie Mac, the government-backed home mortgage company.
“Once you open that door, and say everything in your private business life is now up for scrutiny, the weapon you use against others is the weapon that will be used against you,” Huckabee said.
Perry, in his assault on Romney on the Bain issue, earlier this week said the the front-runner had practiced “vulture capitalism.”
Wynn, the Perry supporter who now has signed on with Romney, said he did so because “I just didn’t think that the attack on Bain Capital was appropriate.”
Wynn, 66, said in a telephone interview that he met with Romney on his campaign bus yesterday before the candidate’s event in Greer, South Carolina.
“I told him I’d be happy to be a foot soldier in the effort,” Wynn said. “I’m sure fundraising will be a part of that.”
Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, another Romney rival, joined the criticism of Gingrich at a Jan. 11 event in West Columbia, South Carolina. American business has suffered because of “hostile rhetoric,” Santorum said.
“It’s bad enough for Barack Obama to blame folks in business for causing problems in this country,” he said. “It’s a whole other thing for Republicans to join in on it.”
Riding momentum from back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney is seeking to bolster a sense of inevitability around his drive for the nomination. He traveled to Florida yesterday to hammer home that point, using the trip to showcase his superior campaign organization and financial strength.
In Florida, Romney has the backing of 36 percent of likely Republican primary voters, according to a Jan. 4-8 survey by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University. At 24 percent, Gingrich is his closest rival there.
Speaking to a crowd of more than 400 at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, Romney continued to keep his focus on President Barack Obama and ignore his Republican opponents, as he has during much of the campaign.
Romney, 64, questioned Obama’s handling of Iran and his relations with Israel. Florida has a Jewish population of almost 640,000, more than any state except for New York and California, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank.
“This president has found it acceptable to be critical of our friends,” Romney said. “He went to the United Nations and criticized Israel for building settlements, had nothing to say about Hamas launching thousands of rockets into Israel.”
Romney said Iran should face additional sanctions, which he didn’t list, and called on Obama to outline a response plan in case Iran launched a nuclear weapon.
Romney is the only one in the Republican race airing television ads in Florida, where absentee balloting for the primary is under way. His campaign already has contacted likely absentee voters multiple times with mailers and phone calls, spokesman Ryan Williams said.
“From everything we’ve seen so far, Mitt Romney has the most aggressive and most active campaign in the state,” said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida.
Romney attended a fundraiser last night at the Palm Beach home of Stephen Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins professional football team.
Curtis Rush, 41, a credit manager who attended the Romney event yesterday in Greer, said he favors the candidate even though he is “not as conservative” as he’d like.
“But I think he can win and I think he can unite the party,” Rush said, adding that he doesn’t think Romney will be seriously hurt by the Bain-related attacks.
“It’s going to backfire on Newt,” he said. “It comes across as anti-capitalist.”
Perry, 61, described himself as “the outsider” in the race as he addressed a crowd of about two dozen diners yesterday at Lizard’s Thicket restaurant in Blythewood, South Carolina.
“If the insiders were going to fix America, they would have already fixed it,” he said.
Comedian Stephen Colbert announced on “The Colbert Report” that he is exploring a presidential run in South Carolina, and made the move legal by handing control of his super-PAC to fellow comic Jon Stewart in the opening segment of last night’s show.
“I am proud to announce that I am forming an exploratory committee to lay the groundwork for my possible candidacy for president of the United States of America of South Carolina,” Colbert said on the show, hours before it aired on Comedy Central.
--With assistance from Michael C. Bender in West Palm Beach, Florida, Kristin Jensen and William McQuillen in Washington and Margaret Newkirk in Greer, South Carolina. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Columbia, South Carolina, at email@example.com; Julie Bykowicz in Columbia, South Carolina, at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com