SPARTANBURG, S.C.—Mitt Romney's campaign would have you believe they aren't worried about Newt Gingrich's momentum in South Carolina. But after weeks of largely ignoring his rival on the stump, the former Massachusetts governor appeared to shift his political strategy Wednesday, dissing the House speaker in perhaps the worst way possible, at least in Republican circles.
He compared Gingrich to Al Gore.
Speaking at an outdoor rally on the campus of Wofford College, Romney mocked Gingrich's claim during Monday's debate that he "worked with President Ronald Reagan" to create 16 million jobs.
"The speaker, the other day at the debate, was talking about how he created millions of jobs when he was working with the Reagan administration," Romney said. "Well, he had been in Congress two years when Ronald Reagan came to office."
Romney added that jobs are created by "private sector" not government.
"Congressmen taking responsibility or taking credit for helping create jobs is sort of like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet," he said.
"OOOOOH," someone in the crowd responded.
A CNN poll released Wednesday found Romney leading Gingrich by 10 points—33 percent to 23 percent--among likely primary voters in the state. (The margin of error was plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.) Romney's renewed focus on Gingrich has some wondering if his campaign's internal polling shows a tightening race in the final days of campaigning here. A Romney aide declined to comment to Yahoo News, but ABC News reported that his campaign "sees the margins narrowing."
Romney's comments came a little more than an hour after his campaign hosted a conference call with two of Gingrich's former congressional colleagues—Jim Talent, a former senator and congressman from Missouri, and former Susan Molinari, a former representative from New York—who repeatedly trashed Gingrich as an "unreliable leader."
They went so far as to claim that Gingrich was responsible for Bill Clinton winning re-election in 1996—suggesting Gingrich's "leadership by chaos" contributed to the poor public opinion of Republicans that year.
"He made himself the issue all the time," Molinari told reporters of Gingrich's tenure as speaker of the House. "The focus is always Newt, and when the focus is Newt the Republican Party loses."
This isn't the first time the Romney has hosted a conference call trashing Gingrich. On Dec. 8—as Gingrich began to surge in the national polls—the campaign hosted a similar call with Talent and former Sen. John Sununu to criticize the former speaker's leadership in Congress.
Asked if reporters should interpret Romney's remarks and this morning's call that the campaign sees Gingrich as a threat to Romney's bid for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney's aides dismissed the question. One aide, who declined to be named, insisted the campaign was merely using Gingrich's comments as a way to further contrast Romney's record with Obama's.
But it comes as Romney looks to win South Carolina's primary on Saturday—a victory that many Republicans believe would unofficially crown him the Republican nominee.
Romney has had a rocky few days in the state as Gingrich and Rick Perry have tried to make his wealth and his tenure as in the private-equity firm Bain Capital an issue in South Carolina, which has been hit especially hard by the struggling economy.
Romney held an early morning rally Tuesday in Florence that attracted only a hundred or so people—the smallest crowd he's seen on the trail in weeks. At a press conference afterward, he admitted he paid an effective tax rate of "closer to 15 percent" and described the more than $374,000 he was paid in speaking fees in 2010 as "not very much"—comments that prompted criticism from both Democrats and his Republican rivals.
At a rally in Rock Hill Wednesday afternoon, Romney did not repeat his criticism of Gingrich on jobs—but he did criticize Gingrich's attacks on his tenure at Bain, insisting he was "disappointed" to see Republicans attacking "free enterprise."
"I'm proud of the fact I've worked in the private sector, that I achieved success," Romney said.
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