COLUMBIA, S.C. — Under pressure from some in his own party, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Thursday tempered his public attacks on front-runner Mitt Romney while defending his right to question the former Massachusetts governor's business record.
"If you ask about his career, it's because he's running for president," Gingrich said of the questions he and his allies have raised about Romney's tenure as head of a private equity fund.
"I think he owes the country a much more detailed answer about what his career was like, what decisions they made, because we're looking at the judgment, the values of a particular person," he said during a Fox News interview Thursday night.
Gingrich and other GOP presidential hopefuls have drawn the ire of an array of Republicans who believe the attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital could hurt the party in the general election against President Barack Obama.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce entered the debate Thursday, saying it was "foolish" for Republicans to bash Romney for his work as a venture capitalist. A top South Carolina supporter of GOP contender Rick Perry, who had taken to calling Romney a "vulture capitalist," said he was joining Romney's camp out of irritation over Perry's attacks.
Gingrich called the criticism "absurd" and said his questions had been misconstrued as an attack on capitalism.
A pro-Gingrich political action committee also has railed against Romney's tenure at the helm of Bain Capital with the release this week of a 28-minute film assailing Romney for "reaping massive rewards" as head of the firm.
Gingrich is grasping for a campaign lifeline in South Carolina, which holds its primary Jan. 21, after a pair of disappointing fourth-place finishes in the contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
During two campaign appearances in South Carolina's capital earlier Thursday, Gingrich stuck to a largely subdued campaign, focusing on his plans for saving Social Security, creating jobs and boosting domestic energy production.
He made no references to Romney, nor did he repeat his criticism of Romney's record as a venture capitalist. Instead, he tried to broaden his message with a call for auditing the federal bailout of the financial industry to see who got the money and why.
"When you have crony-capitalism and politicians taking care of their friends that's not free-enterprise. That's back-door socialism," Gingrich said during remarks to older voters at a senior citizen's expo.
The former House speaker predicted that a win in the first-in-the-South primary would pave a path to the presidency.
"If I win South Carolina, I think I will become the Republican nominee," he said.
Last month, Gingrich made a similarly bold declaration about winning the nomination. At the time he was ahead in the polls and Romney's allies had not yet blooded Gingrich with a barrage of negative attack ads in Iowa.
South Carolina has a decades-long streak of voting for the eventual GOP nominee.
From South Carolina, Gingrich was headed to Florida to raise money and open a campaign headquarters.