WALTERBORO, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry refused Thursday to retreat from disparaging comments about rival Mitt Romney's business record, saying the GOP will be better off airing those concerns now than letting Democrats exploit the issue this fall.
Even as he toned down campaign rhetoric over Romney and his work at private equity firm Bain Capital, Perry told The Associated Press that he believes criticism of businesses practices by Bain "has penetrated" in South Carolina. The state's unemployment rate, 9.9 percent in November, is higher than the national average.
"If that's a flawed candidate because of that practice we need to talk about it now," Perry said. "I can promise you, this wasn't something that wasn't going to get talked about. I think it's better that we talk about it now in January instead of in September."
The Texas governor has endured blowback from conservatives who saw his description of "vulture capitalism" as an affront to free-market values. Earlier Thursday, a prominent Perry supporter switched his allegiance to Romney over the issue.
Investment fund executive and top GOP donor Barry Wynn told the AP he was leaving the Perry fold to endorse the former Massachusetts governor. Wynn said Perry's attacks on Romney's time at the helm of Bain had crossed the line.
"I've been fighting for this cause most of my life," Wynn said. "It's like fingernails on the chalkboard. It just kind of irritated you to hear those kind of attacks."
Walking the streets of Summerville, Perry was hearing it from voters, too.
Barbara Schimp pulled the candidate aside to tell him to "lay off" the Bain attack. She told Perry, whom she supports, that it sounded anti-business.
"Roger that," Perry told her with a wink.
Schimp, a former paramedic who moved south last year from Michigan, told a reporter that she knows Perry is pro-business but that the Bain focus "makes him sound like he's anti-business."
"He's got all the jobs down in Texas so he doesn't need to sound like he's anti-business," Schimp said.
Perry is desperate for a strong showing in South Carolina's primary on Jan. 21 to keep his presidential hopes alive. He finished at or near the bottom of the pack in voting in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Asked if he would commit himself to taking his campaign to Florida no matter how he performs in South Carolina, Perry told the AP: "I'm committing to go in there and talk to those people" – then walked into a steak-and-seafood restaurant for a town hall meeting.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in Blythewood, S.C., contributed to this report.