There are good and valid reasons (RomneyCare, electability, etc.) why Republicans are looking at candidates other than Mitt Romney. But that’s no reason to minimize the egregiousness and plain falsity of Newt Gingrich’s attacks.

The issue isn’t, oh gosh, shouldn’t we make sure that Romney’s claims as to the number of jobs created by Bain are accurate? (Romney does need to do a better job of substantiating his claims, and if he has played fast and loose with the numbers, he should be held accountable.)

Nor is it whether conservatives are blind to the limitations of the market. (No one in this race except Ron Paul is arguing for no government interference with the market.) And when you argue that Bain is “nothing like” those productive businesses (that nice Home Depot, you know), you reveal ignorance as to how those businesses get seed capital to survive, grow and hire more employees.

For goodness sake, Gingrich hasn’t simply been trying to bring the Bain years to “light.” He’s taken a blowtorch (accusing Romney of “looting” and making money off the misery of others) to the process by which small businesses are capitalized, risk-takers invest in shaky ventures (and sometimes lose money), and some businesses grow and succeed while others fail. (Gingrich, of course, is entirely unaware that, without the attempted rescue of these companies by venture capitalists, all the employees would have lost jobs and the companies would have shut their doors.) In fact, he has painted the endeavor as morally objectionable.

I too want the race to unfold methodically (as I wrote earlier today), and I welcome (goodness knows, I covered him before most anyone else) the emergence of Rick Santorum as a top-tier candidate. But you don’t promote those ends by propounding the idea that, well, maybe Gingrich is right. And you don’t suggest that all that investment-capital stuff is sort of distasteful.

The editors of the National Review hit the nail on the head when they wrote: “Wall Street has its share of miscreants, and they should be recognized as such when appropriate. But to abominate Mitt Romney for having been a success at the business of investing in struggling American companies, connecting entrepreneurs with capital and producers with markets, is foolish and destructive. Republicans ought to know better, and the fact that Gingrich et al. apparently do not is the most disturbing commentary on the state of the primary field so far.”

Once again, we can learn something from principled conservatives who oppose Romney. I asked Stuart Roy, who heads the Santorum super PAC, Red White & Blue, whether the anti-Bain hit piece had been shopped to him. He told me that “the Bain piece was not shopped to us at Red White & Blue nor would we have be interested in it.”

He then told me: “These ludicrous types of attacks on free markets by losing candidates are, in part, why Rick Santorum will become the conservative alternative in this presidential race. There are major differences between Santorum and Romney that will shine through — particularly that Rick Santorum has been a consistent conservative. But belief in capitalism and markets won’t separate the two.”

Bingo. You attack, if you want an alternative to Romney, from the right and on behalf of free-market conservatives who have been vilified for their defense of the profit motive. You devise an agenda that is pro-growth with adjustments for worthy social aims, without taking a meat ax to the capital markets. (How, pray tell, does Gingrich and Barack Obama think firms get money to invest and hire people?)

Santorum, in his speeches and debates, has never once vilified the marketplace or suggested that we should not try to maximize the benefits of capitalism. He doesn’t disparage the profit motive or suggest capital markets or corporations are suspect. What he has suggested is that, in addition to support of pro-market policies (e.g. reduced regulation, flattening the tax code), we can also promote families (by expanding the child tax credit) and pursue other socially beneficial policies.

In order to come up with a platform that can prevail in a Republican primary and attract a broad array of voters, you need a “capitalism-plus” message, not a “well, we know capitalism stinks a lot of the time” one. I’m encouraged that Santorum himself and those who support him seem to grasp this.