By Alicia M. Cohn - 01/19/12 01:45 AM EST
Newt Gingrich showed signs of momentum in South Carolina on Wednesday, thanks to new polls, large crowds, a strong debate performance and indications that Mitt Romney feels threatened.
“I fully expect the Romney campaign to be unendingly dirty and dishonest for the next four days, because they’re desperate. They thought they could buy this. They’re discovering they can’t,” Gingrich said in Warrenville, S.C. “I think they have internal polls saying they’re going to lose this.”
The Palmetto State votes on Saturday, and Romney is campaigning on the momentum of his wins in the two previous states, Iowa and New Hampshire. But Gingrich, who finished disappointingly low in those votes, looks more popular in the Southern state, where his events have typically drawn larger crowds than have Romney’s.
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign launched a coordinated attack against Gingrich on Wednesday, a strong signal it is worried about the former Speaker. Romney usually focuses on campaigning against President Obama in his stump speeches, a tactic intended to highlight his status as front-runner in the race. But Romney hit Gingrich at two campaign stops on Wednesday.
The campaign also blasted Gingrich as an “unreliable leader” in a Web video and unleashed two former members of Congress to blast Gingrich’s leadership as House Speaker in the 1990s.
Gail Gitcho, Romney’s communications director, told reporters the criticism was an effort to “distinguish” the candidate from Gingrich. But it added up to be the strongest direct criticism of the former Speaker by the campaign since his surge in the polls in early December.
The attacks follow Gingrich’s strong performance in Monday night’s debate (the candidates meet again Thursday night for a debate in Charleston, S.C.). It also comes after Sarah Palin urged her supporters in the state to vote for the former Speaker, telling Fox News she’d like to vote for Gingrich because “iron sharpens iron,” suggesting he is a good challenge for Romney.
Meanwhile, Romney faces a spat of criticism over not releasing his tax returns and for noting he pays a lower tax rate — 15 percent — on his investment income.
Romney also came under heavy fire from his rivals in Monday night’s debate, and his campaign tried to refocus some of the criticism on Gingrich on Wednesday.
Former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.) and former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), in a conference call set up by the Romney campaign, characterized their time serving in Congress under then-Speaker Gingrich as filled with uncertainty from one day to the next.
Molinari and Talent doubled down on what they called a pattern of inconsistency extending from the 1990s to the current campaign.
Molinari credited Gingrich for being a “big ideas guy” but warned, “Anybody else’s ideas were really not taken into account as we moved through his Speakership.”
She continued, “You need big ideas, but you also need attention to details and follow-through, and clearly, that was lacking.”
She also charged that Gingrich was a factor in former President Clinton’s reelection in 1996.
“We do not want Speaker Gingrich to help reelect another Democrat president,” she said.
Talent agreed, saying Obama’s record needs to be the focus of the general election and it won’t be with Gingrich as nominee.
“If the Speaker’s the nominee, he’s going to be the issue … his comments are going to be the issue,” he predicted. “Yes, he can say exciting things, he also says things that undermine the conservative movement and he says them in outrageous ways.”
Gingrich accused the Romney campaign of throwing “the kitchen sink” at him in Wednesday’s attacks.
“Maybe they’re bored. Maybe they have excess money,” he suggested to reporters in Winnsboro, S.C.
“My question back to Gov. Romney is, show us how many Republicans you helped elect in the ’80s when you weren’t for Reagan and Bush.” Gingrich said. “They’re saying I helped reelect a Democrat? That’s just stupid.”
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul responded to Gingrich in another email sent out by the campaign.
“Pointing out Speaker Gingrich’s unreliable leadership isn’t ‘stupid’ or dishonest — it’s just a fact,” she said. “As a historian, he should recall that Democrats linked Speaker Gingrich to Republican candidates all over the country in an effort to defeat them.”
Romney also had good news out of Florida, the next state to hold its nominating contest. A Time/CNN/ORC International poll of that state showed the former governor with a strong lead: 43 percent to Rick Santorum’s 19. Gingrich had 18 percent in that poll.
Gingrich’s campaign fought back on Wednesday, releasing a list of 11 current and 11 former members of Congress willing to praise the candidate’s “leadership skills during his time as Speaker, creating 11 million new jobs, balancing the budget, controlling spending and reducing poverty levels.”
In Warrenville, Gingrich didn’t name names but put himself in a “different league” from the other Republican candidates. “We’ve got lots of candidates who can make speeches, but you’ve got to actually get something done,” he said, crediting himself for balancing the budget and passing welfare reform while in office.
According to Gingrich, South Carolina is conservatives’ last chance to challenge Romney for the nomination.
He’s encouraged rivals Rick Perry and Santorum to drop out of the race so the right can coalesce behind him as the anti-Romney candidate.
The winner of South Carolina’s primary has gone on to win the Republican nomination since the contest’s inception in 1980.