ROCK HILL, S.C. — Newt Gingrich's South Carolina strategy is pretty simple: Tear down Republican front-runner Mitt Romney with a populist pitch or go down trying.
The party establishment, Gingrich said Wednesday, doesn't want to confront the hard questions.
"Don't talk about who got all the money. ... Can't we can't just move forward letting the rich keep all the money?" Gingrich said, arguing that "crony capitalism" undermines free enterprise.
"I want you to know that I am running precisely because, as an Army brat from a middle-class family who taught in college, I think middle-class, taxpaying, working families deserve a government that is honest," he said.
As the GOP presidential race swept South, Gingrich had little to lose after humbling fourth-place finishes in both New Hampshire and Iowa. And the former House speaker made clear on Wednesday that he's not giving up without a fight, despite mounting pressure from some GOP power brokers to coalesce behind Romney and avoid a nasty primary fight that could bolster Democrat Barack Obama.
That's putting Gingrich on what could be a kamikaze mission designed, he says, to rescue the GOP from selling out to the moderate, establishment wing.
As a pro-Gingrich political action committee took the wraps off a 28-minute Web video eviscerating Romney's leadership of Bain Capital, Gingrich launched a full-throated assault on "crony capitalism" and establishment politics.
It's a strategy that is already drawing critics. Conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh said Gingrich sounded like Democratic Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren in Massachussetts.
And by midday, he appeared to be having second thoughts when he was confronted by a Republican voter.
"I think you've missed the target on the way you're addressing Romney's weaknesses," said a man at a town hall in Spartanburg. "I want to beg you to redirect and go after his obvious disingenuousness about his conservatism and lay off the corporatist versus the free market."
"I agree with you," Gingrich replied. "It's an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background. Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect."
The "crony capitalism" remark was not repeated at his final campaign stop at the Beacon Restaurant in Spartanburg.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond insisted there had been no shift in strategy and that Romney's tenure at Bain is still "fair game."
Gingrich hammered his point home at his first event of the day packed event in Rock Hill.
"We have a right to know what happened at Goldman Sachs, what happened with trillions of dollars in New York," he said. "We have a right to know what happened when companies go bankrupt."
It's a line of attack meant to keep the heat on Romney and his tenure at the venture capital firm where lucrative corporate takeovers were sometimes accompanied by deep layoffs.
"This is not anti-capitalism," Gingrich said. "That is the smoke-screen of those who are afraid to be accountable."
The sharp new populist tone comes with risks for Gingrich, who has a net worth in the millions of dollars and who has made a career navigating the corridors of power in Washington. It opens him up to charges of hypocrisy. Additionally, a segment of the Republican electorate will see his remarks as contrary to the very free market principles that the Republican Party espouses, thus engaging in the very class warfare he condemns
The everyman economic message could resonate in South Carolina, which has been hit hard by the recession. The former Georgia congressman was met by large and enthusiastic crowds chanting "Newt" as he campaigned in the conservative western reaches of the state.
"I think he's got spunk and nerve," said Dottie Myers of Gastonia, S.C. "I like that."
Gingrich said he thinks South Carolina will winnow down the choices to Romney and a conservative alternative.
"I believe that South Carolinians are either going to center in and pick one conservative or, by default, you're going to send a moderate on to the nomination," he said.
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