Romney gains traction in South Carolina

— Newt Gingrich came here itching for a fight, hoping to consolidate conservative support behind his candidacy and hopefully loosen Mitt Romney’s tightening grip on the GOP nomination.

But, two days in, he keeps backpedaling and veering off-script.

Gingrich’s initial attempts to attack Romney for the kind of venture capitalist he was as chief executive officer of Bain Capital has generated a huge backlash of criticism from fellow conservatives. So much that on Friday, Gingrich asked an outside group that supports him to pull a 30-minute documentary that explores Bain’s record of layoffs during Romney’s tenure there, after some of the claims were found to be false.

“I am calling for the Winning Our Future Super-PAC supporting me to either edit its ‘King of Bain’ advertisement and movie, to remove its inaccuracies, or to pull it off the air and off the Internet entirely,” Gingrich said in a statement.

Gingrich started his final stretch of campaigning here with a semi-populist tone, criticizing bank bailouts by the federal government, setting up a big guy vs. little guy narrative in which the millionaires prosper and the middle class suffers.

He also pledged to his conservative audiences, who have greeted him with standing ovations, that he would defend Christian values. Romney also made a play for the all-important evangelical vote in South Carolina, releasing a minute-long radio ad called “Shares Our Values,” which features Sen. Jim DeMint, a tea party favorite, saying that Romney “feels passionately that the value of human life begins at conception.”

The South Carolina contest seemed reduced to a tale of two campaigns: Romney’s is well-oiled and chugging along, while Gingrich’s seemed to be running on fumes, improvising as he goes.

Romney appeared in Aiken with Gov. Nikki Haley (R) as a crowd of 300 chanted his name. The event started a few minutes late. Yard signs and posters were passed out to supporters, and Romney told the same jokes and recited the same lines from “America The Beautiful” that he has all during his campaign.

On Friday, his surrogates delivered forceful defenses of his Bain career.

“Mitt Romney believes that business creates jobs in the free enterprise system, and yes, sometimes some of them failed,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “The greatest free enterprise system is the greatest job creator there is and this man was part of that . . . Yes there were some jobs lost, but overall it’s what the free enterprise system is all about.”

Taking questions from the crowd, Romney was asked by an elderly woman: “Do you believe in the divine saving grace of Jesus Christ?”

“Yes, I do,” Romney said, giving a simple answer to a question that went to the heart of his Mormon faith.

But Romney used the opportunity to extol the virtue of religious tolerance. “Our president will be president of the people of all faiths,” he said. As the crowd applauded, he added: “I happen to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God and my savior, but I know other people have differing views and I respect those views and don’t believe those qualify or disqualify people for leadership in our nation.”

Gingrich, meanwhile, spent half the day in Florida, opening up a campaign office in Orlando and raising money in Miami. At his events Thursday, he showed up late to both and forced his surrogate, former representative J.C. Watts, to stall for time with chatter of college football and the weather.

At his final event Friday, a conservative forum which also featured former senator Rick Rick Santorum (Pa.), the moderator introduced Gingrich (awkwardly referring to Callista as his “third wife.”).

People stood, cheered and looked around for Gingrich.

And then this from the moderator: “Can we check and see where the speaker is?”

After a few minutes, the crowd began to chant: “We want Newt. We want Newt.”

The got him eventually, about 10 minutes later.

Staff writers Felicia Sonmez and Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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