Wary Romney slams Gingrich in South Carolina

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SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Mitt Romney's campaign on Wednesday sharpened its attacks on Newt Gingrich, portraying the former House speaker as an unreliable and bombastic leader as Gingrich gained momentum days before the South Carolina presidential primary.

Team Romney, which prefers to focus on President Obama rather than Romney's GOP rivals, turned its attention to Gingrich on the eve of what will be the candidates' last debate in South Carolina, underscoring the front-runner's growing unease with the contender who now threatens to upset him in the Palmetto State.

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Gingrich's support surged following his feisty performance in Monday's debate and his visceral attacks on Romney's tenure at a venture capital firm. A CNN/Time poll shows Gingrich has cut Romney's once-comfortable lead in South Carolina by half and now trails the former Massachusetts governor 33 percent to 23 percent.

GOP presidential debate
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Charleston, S.C.
Watch: CNN
Sponsors: CNN, Southern Republican Leadership Conference

Romney, who won Iowa and New Hampshire and is hoping to solidify his front-runner status with a victory in South Carolina, took issue with Gingrich's claims that he helped balance the budget and created jobs while leading the Republicans 1994 takeover of Congress.

"Congressmen taking credit for creating jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet," Romney told a rally crowd.

Meanwhile, Romney's supporters, former Sen. Jim Talent of Missouri and Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, told reporters in a conference call that Gingrich ultimately derailed the conservative cause -- and contributed to then-President Clinton's decisive re-election in 1996.

"He's not reliable," said Talent, ripping Gingrich for his criticism last year of Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan and attacks on Romney's history at Bain Capital. "Yes, he can say exciting things. He also says things that undermine the conservative movement."

Added Molinari: "I can only describe his style as leadership by chaos."

Gingrich, however seemed to welcome the confrontation, predicting that Romney's campaign would resort to "unendingly dirty and dishonest" tactics in the final days before a primary that will likely determine whether the race evolves into a coronation of the front-runner -- or a protracted, national fight.

"Oh, goodie," said Gingrich when told of two new Romney ads against him. "Show us how many Republicans you helped elect in '92 when you were voting as a Democrat for Paul Tsongas. Where do they get the gall to run this kind of ad?"

Former Rep. Bob Walker of Pennsylvania, a key Gingrich adviser, said the Romney rhetoric was rooted in Gingrich's South Carolina ascension.

"There's no doubt the momentum is shifting back our way," he told The Washington Examiner. "People are really beginning to harden their viewpoints. Newt is breaking that bubble that Romney is the only one who can compete in the fall. We can win on Saturday."

The simmering tension between Romney and Gingrich previews what could prove another volatile debate on Thursday, this time in Charleston.

But some South Carolina pundits say Romney need not stress over Gingrich as long as the most conservative voters remain splintered among Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and, to a lesser degree, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"He may be worried, but I don't see that he has a reason to be," said Danielle Vinson, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville. "Unless something crazy happens in the next few days, I just don't see it."

bhughes@washingtonexaminer.com

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