David Goldman, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Anxious to end Mitt Romney's two-state winning streak, his rivals hammered him as unfeeling toward laid-off workers and out of step with conservative Christians. Romney touted $56 million in fundraising, putting his dominance on full display as the presidential campaign barreled into South Carolina Wednesday.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, reveling in the race's turn to the South, struck a populist note in Rock Hill. Without naming Romney, he continued his previous attacks on the Republican front-runner as a former venture capitalist whose deals cost people their jobs.
Gingrich told an enthusiastic crowd of about 300 that he wants "free enterprise that is honest. I want a free enterprise system that is accountable."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, mindful that some conservatives are unhappy with him for labeling Romney a "vulture capitalist," struck a defensive note Wednesday but stood by his criticism.
"I understand restructuring. I understand those types of things," Perry told supporters outside Columbia. "But the idea we can't criticize someone for these get-rich-quick schemes is inappropriate from my perspective."
In the audience, retired car salesman Charles Ray said Perry was right to pursue the issue. Ray wore a pinned-on sign that said "ABM" — for "Anybody But Mitt" — and said he felt that sentiment even more strongly after seeing the look in Romney's eyes when he spoke of liking to fire people.
"It was a gleam like, 'I enjoy that,'" Ray said. "That's not an enjoyable feeling to get fired or fire somebody."
Although Romney's comment about firing people actually referred to ditching underperforming insurance companies, his ill-chosen words may be hard to live down in an economically distressed state like South Carolina.
Romney suggested his rivals' attacks on his business record were born of desperation.
"We've understood for a long time that the Obama people would come after free enterprise," Romney said. "A little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness for the prosecution, but I don't think that's going to hurt my efforts."
While predicting that winning South Carolina would be "an uphill battle," Romney seemed already to be looking ahead to a general election race against President Barack Obama, with a self-assurance that must be wearing on his five opponents.
Underscoring his strong position, Romney's campaign announced that it had raised $56 million for the primary through Dec. 31 and is sitting on more than $19 million in cash, dwarfing his opponents' fundraising. Romney said that while other campaigns can afford to stay in the nomination fight for now, "I expect them to fall by the wayside eventually for lack of voters."
As he boarded a plane for South Carolina, reporters asked about the state's reputation for sometimes bare-knuckled politics and whether Romney was prepared to handle a whisper campaign about his Mormon faith or other aspects of his background.
"Politics ain't bean bags and I know it's going to get tough," Romney said, "and no one's going to be happy if things are said that are untrue."
Romney hopes to force his opponents from the race by achieving a four-state streak with victories in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida 10 days later. He released a new Spanish-language TV ad in Florida on Wednesday.
Romney posted a double-digit win Tuesday night in New Hampshire after a squeaker the week before in Iowa — making him the first non-incumbent Republican in a generation to pull off the back-to-back feat.
But the way ahead passes through minefields that held Romney to fourth place in the South Carolina primary when he ran in 2008.
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