Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined in the assault, picking up the new favorite line of attack against Romney — that the former Massachusetts governor and former private-equity executive bankrupted companies and laid off workers as a management consultant at Bain Capital.
“Venture capitalism is good,” Perry said to about 150 people at Shealy’s Bar-B-Que in Leesville. “But vulture capitalism, I’ve got no use for.”
Gingrich has sent conflicting messages as to how sharply he intends to target Romney. Throughout a negative ad blitz aimed at him in Iowa by a pro-Romney PAC, Gingrich pledged to stick with a positive message. But his tone changed in recent days, and on Tuesday, his spokesman, R.C. Hammond, signaled that South Carolina would be nastier: “The goal is to get rid of Romney. Our goal is to remove Mitt Romney from the competitive ranks.”
But one thing was clear by the end of Wednesday: Even the candidates determined to attack Romney on Bain were having trouble doing that without contradicting their own conservative ideology about the role of market capitalism and prompting a backlash from within their party.
Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, the third-place finisher in New Hampshire, implored Republicans to drop the Bain issue.
“I think it’s more instructive to look at governor Romney’s record as governor,” Huntsman told reporters after an appearance at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. “You can’t be on both sides of this issue. If you’re going to stand for breaking up the banks, then you can’t criticize Bain Capital for doing some of what it did.”
Other GOP leaders, nervous about the damage such a debate could do to Romney, as well as the entire party, said attacking free enterprise gives President Obama a talking point for the general election.
The tea-party-friendly group Americans for Prosperity assailed the “populist-tinged attacks on free enterprise.”
Romney, after boarding a plane to South Carolina, considered the prospect of a blistering campaign there over the next week and a half and said he did not expect the Bain attacks from his own party.
“We’ve understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise,” he said. “I’m a little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness to the prosecution. But I don’t think that’s going to hurt my purpose. Frankly, if I can’t take a few shots coming from my colleagues on the Republican side, I’m not ready for Barack Obama.”
Gingrich seemed unsure about how to proceed. He steered clear of the issue in his first appearance Wednesday, at the Laurel Creek Club in Rock Hill, where he got a five-minute standing ovation as he strolled onstage.