COLUMBIA, S.C. — Under pressure from some in his own party, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich pulled back his public attacks on front-runner Mitt Romney — at least for now.
Gingrich stuck to a largely subdued campaign speech during two events Thursday in South Carolina's capital, focusing on his plans for saving Social Security, creating jobs and boosting domestic energy production.
The often-combative Gingrich made no references to Romney, nor did he repeat his criticism of the former Massachusetts governor's record as a venture capitalist. 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 private equity firm.
That line of attack has some Republicans worried that Gingrich is trying to save his faltering campaign at the party's expense. 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.
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 support of GOP contender Rick Perry, who had taken to calling Romney a "vulture capitalist," said Thursday he was joining Romney's camp out of irritation over Perry's attacks.
Gingrich acknowledged drawing the ire of some conservatives. But he insisted their anger was over his calls 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.
During a morning TV interview, Gingrich said his questions about Romney were "not the centerpiece" of his campaign in South Carolina. Still, he said it was important to question Romney's record because the former Massachusetts governor has based his campaign on the argument that he has the necessary business experience to restore the economy.
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.