(Updates with poll results, Romney and Gingrich comments starting in sixth paragraph. For more campaign news, see ELECT.)
Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, under fire from rival Newt Gingrich for refusing to immediately release his tax returns, ridiculed the former U.S. House speaker for claiming credit for jobs created while he served in Congress.
“Congressmen taking responsibility or taking credit for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet,” Romney said to laughter from his audience at a rally today in Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
Gore’s comment in a 1999 interview that he “took the initiative in creating the Internet” was widely used against him in his 2000 campaign as the Democratic presidential nominee.
Gingrich asserted at a Jan. 16 televised debate among the Republican presidential candidates in Myrtle Beach that he helped create 16 million jobs as a young congressman working with then-President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and 11 million jobs dealing with then-President Bill Clinton as speaker in the 1990s.
Romney, facing pressure to make his tax records public before South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary, moved to preserve his front-runner status and blunt any late surge by the former Georgia congressman. A victory in the state -- following his wins in the initial contests in Iowa and New Hampshire -- could open a path for him to quickly wrap up his party’s nod.
A poll showed Gingrich gaining on Romney in South Carolina. A CNN/Time/ORC International poll conducted Jan. 13-17 showed Romney with a 10-point lead over Gingrich, a drop from the 19- point edge he held over him in a survey taken less than two weeks before.
Romney’s campaign today deployed former Republican colleagues of Gingrich’s to attack him as unreliable and ineffective, organizing a conference call with former U.S. Representative Susan Molinari of New York and former Senator Jim Talent of Missouri, who also was a former House member, to level the criticism.
“I can only describe his style as leadership by chaos,” Molinari said of Gingrich in the call with reporters. “When the focus is Newt, the Republican Party loses. We do not want Newt Gingrich to help re-elect another Democratic president.”
In Internet videos the Romney campaign released to press its case, Molinari says: “The last time Newt Gingrich was the head of the Republican Party as speaker, he became so controversial, he helped re-elect a Democratic president,” a reference to Clinton’s 1996 victory.
Talent says in another ad that the 2012 election should spotlight President Barack Obama, “and if the speaker were the nominee, the election would be about him and his unreliable leadership in the past.”
Gingrich, speaking today at a packed campaign event in Warrenville, South Carolina, called Romney’s campaign “desperate,” saying he expects it to be “unendingly dirty and dishonest over the next four days.”
“I think they have internal polls that show them losing,” he said at Bobby’s Bar-B-Q. “They will do anything on any level.”
The CNN poll released today showed Romney drawing support from 33 percent of likely South Carolina Republican primary voters, followed by Gingrich at 23 percent, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum with 16 percent, Texas Representative Ron Paul at 13 percent, and Texas Governor Rick Perry at 6 percent. A similar poll taken Jan. 4-5 showed Romney with 37 percent, followed by Santorum at 19 percent and Gingrich at 18 percent.
Gingrich told reporters in Winnsboro, South Carolina, that he senses momentum gathering behind his candidacy and that rallying behind him was the only way for Republicans opposed to Romney to thwart the former Massachusetts governor.
“My pitch is, if conservatives come together, we beat Romney decisively,” Gingrich said. “If conservatives are split, he might squeak through with a plurality.”
Romney today drew parallels between Obama and Gingrich, who has criticized Romney’s work as an executive at the Boston-based private equity firm Bain Capital LLC. Gingrich yesterday termed Bain “exploitative,” and said its record is “not defensible.”
“I was disappointed over the last couple of weeks seeing one of my opponents attacking free enterprise just like the president was,” Romney told voters in Spartanburg. “That’s not the role of the Republican Party.”
Romney continued to face questions on the tax issue after telling reporters yesterday that he probably pays a tax rate close to 15 percent and that he would release his most recent tax return in April if he has clinched the Republican nomination by then.
Gingrich said today he paid a 31 percent effective federal tax rate, after deductions.
“Thirty-one percent of my income belonged to the government,” he said in Winnsboro. Gingrich said he plans to release his 2010 returns tomorrow and his 2011 forms as soon as they are prepared.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Romney supporter, called on him to release his returns “sooner rather than later.”
“It’s always better, in my view, to have complete disclosure, especially when you’re the front-runner,” Christie said on NBC’s “Today” show.
Gingrich sought to capitalize on a boost from former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin -- the Republican 2008 vice presidential nominee and Tea Party favorite -- who last night told Fox News that if she were a South Carolina voter, she would cast her ballot for him “in order to keep this thing going.”
“I would ask her to consider taking a major role in the next administration if I’m president,” Gingrich said of Palin, adding that “nothing has been discussed” yet.
Another nationally televised debate among the Republican candidates will be held tomorrow night in North Charleston, South Carolina.
--With assistance from John McCormick in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Editors: Don Frederick, Justin Blum
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Rock Hill, South Carolina at Jdavis159@bloomberg.net. Lisa Lerer in Columbia, South Carolina at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com