Gingrich Backs Off On Private Equity Jabs At Romney

As Newt Gingrich campaigned in South Carolina Thursday, there were signs he was beginning to soften his critique of the private equity career of rival Mitt Romney. Gingrich had come under fire this week from fellow Republicans for his attack on Romney for his time at Bain Capital.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Officially, at least, Newt Gingrich has no control over the super PAC buying ads in his name. You heard the ad a moment ago there, with the suspense-thriller music and attacks on Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital. But within his own campaign, Gingrich seems to be softening his attacks on Mitt Romney.

NPR's Debbie Elliott is also in Columbia, South Carolina. She joins us now with more from the campaign trail. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How and why is Gingrich changing his tone?

ELLIOTT: Well, you could sort of watch it happen over the last couple of days, based on a few appearances that he's made on television. First, let's go back to Tuesday. It was Election Day in New Hampshire. He was hitting very hard, portraying Romney as a corporate raider and job-killer. Here he is on Bloomberg Television.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOOMBERG TV BROADCAST)

NEWT GINGRICH: You have to raise questions when somebody comes in, takes over a company that's apparently pretty profitable and has a real future, and then drains it of its money and walks off, leaving behind people on unemployment.

ELLIOTT: And then, by yesterday, he was on the defensive a bit, making the case now: I'm not questioning the free market system, he said. I'm questioning the career of one man: Mitt Romney. Still, he tried to sort of get the conversation back to his agenda. Let's listen to his appearance yesterday morning on "Fox and Friends."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX AND FRIENDS")

GINGRICH: And I'm not - this is not the centerpiece of my campaign, but it's a legitimate, important question.

INSKEEP: He said it's a legitimate, important question, but nevertheless, he's not hammering it quite as hard?

ELLIOTT: No, he's not. I went to an event yesterday at the state House here in Columbia. It was a home builders rally, and he was the big speaker at the end. And never once did he mention Bain Capital or Mitt Romney as he was talking to voters there. Instead, he was trying to push his ideas, you know, about smaller government, less taxes and expanding oil and gas development in the United States.

INSKEEP: You know, Gingrich has already learned that there are limits to positive campaigning in such a harsh environment. He tried to keep it positive in Iowa and got nowhere. So how is he going to stay in the race?

ELLIOTT: Well, that's a very good question, and I think that's probably what his advisors are talking in today. But I think they started to realize that playing hard about Bain Capital could backfire.

And we've already seen that happen with Texas Governor Rick Perry, we should note, here in South Carolina. He had called Romney a vulture capitalist. And I talked to one of his South Carolina fundraisers, Barry Wynn, last night. Wynn, yesterday, defected to the Romney Camp. He was frustrated. He says these attacks sounded more like President Obama talking points than they did a Republican candidate.

He says either you support the free market capitalist system or you don't. And that's what several prominent conservatives have been out there saying in the past few days, that it's just not good for a GOP candidate to be condemning a key part of the capitalist system, that risks investors take.

INSKEEP: I heard something like that from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

RUDY GIULIANI: What they're doing to Mitt right now is totally, absolutely unfair and bad for the Republican Party.

INSKEEP: So, with that said, Debbie Elliott, is it the last we're going to hear of Bain Capital?

ELLIOTT: Oh, no. As we just heard in Brian Naylor's piece, South Carolina is being inundated with television ads, and a big part of them are coming from that pro-Gingrich super PAC Winning Our Future taking a really, you know, hard shot at Romney and his record at Bain.

INSKEEP: Debbie, thanks very much.

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott in Columbia, South Carolina.

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