Earlier in the week, conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, often a Romney critic, called Gingrich's comments "out of bounds for those who value the free market." Club for Growth President Chris Chocola labeled the attacks "disgusting." And South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who endorsed Romney in 2008 but is unaligned this year, suggested that Romney critics don't understand "the principles of our party."
"To have a few Republicans in this race beginning to talk about how bad it is to fire people...it really gives the Democrats a lot of fodder," DeMint, arguably South Carolina's most popular Republican, told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
Although presidential contender Jon Huntsman had criticized Romney for a comment he made about firing people, Huntsman said on Wednesday: "If you have creative destruction in capitalism, which has always been part of capitalism, it becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital."
Gingrich and Perry seem to have gotten the message — to a point.
While Gingrich said "I'm not going to back down" during a campaign stop in Columbia on Thursday, he made no mention of Romney nor did he repeat his criticism of Romney's record as a venture capitalist.
Instead, Gingrich tried to shift blame, saying that it was his calls to audit the 2008 federal banking bailout that had "rattled a number of so-called conservatives."
"When you have crony capitalism and politicians taking care of their friends, that's not free enterprise, that's back-door socialism," said Gingrich, who is airing a TV ad describing Romney's economic plans as timid.
An outside group supporting Gingrich — called Winning Our Future — pressed ahead with plans to launch an advertising attack on Romney's time at Bain, complete with a bruising ad and longer-form video in South Carolina assailing Romney as a vicious corporate raider.
Perry, who had likened companies like Bain to vultures, avoided attacking Romney for his role at Bain during two stops in South Carolina on Thursday.
Yet, he jabbed at the issue indirectly during an interview with Fox News.
"The idea that you've got private equity companies that come in and take companies apart so they can make profits and have people lose their jobs, that's not what the Republican Party's about," Perry said.
During a walk between shops in Summerville, S.C., voter Barbara Schimp pulled Perry aside and told him to "lay off" the Bain attack. She told Perry, whom she supports, that he sounds anti-business.
"Roger that," Perry responded with a wink.
Romney, for his part, has tried in recent days to explain the private equity business. He told reporters in Greer as the day began that in the private sector some businesses grow and thrive while others have to be cut back in order to survive and become stronger.
"Sometimes you're successful at that and sometimes you're not," Romney said.
Meanwhile, his team was working behind the scenes to blunt the force of the criticism, distributing talking points to surrogates warning against attacking the free-market economy.
On Wednesday night, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley chided Gingrich and Perry indirectly while introducing Romney, whom she has endorsed, during a campaign event in Columbia.
"We have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like dang Democrats against the free market," Haley said. "We believe in free markets."
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Brian Bakst in South Carolina, and Jim Kuhnhenn in Washington contributed to this report.
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