Spartanburg, S.C. - Newt Gingrich says he has no plans to dial back his questions about Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, which the campaign has sought to portray as an unprincipled business of taking apart companies and laying off workers for profit.
Gingrich told Fox News Channel's Greta van Susteren Wednesday night that he wasn't attacking Bain Capital as a business but Mitt Romney's judgment as an individual at the company. And while Romney defenders characterized the former House Speaker's attacks as anti-capitalist, Gingrich accused them of using the word capitalism as a "smokescreen" to shield the Republican frontrunner from hard questions about his work as a businessman.
"This is one of those phony efforts to throw up a smokescreen," said Gingrich. "This isn't about capitalism. This isn't even about private equity funds. This is about one person who wants to be president of the United States. He owes the country an explanation. Why were certain decisions made? How were they done? What was the consequence of them? Does he stand by them in retrospect? Now surely if he's going to go around running for president saying his 25-year business record is proof, he ought to be willing to discuss the 25-year business record instead of suddenly jumping up and saying, ‘Any question is a sign you're attacking free enterprise.' That's baloney."
Gingrich started his morning with blistering words for an establishment he said awarded crony capitalism, and in particular, candidates like Mitt Romney who would uphold that status quo. But by his third and last stop of the day at the Beacon Restaurant in Spartanburg, all evidence of Gingrich's populist message had vanished from the stump -- no mention of crony capitalism, no talk about a need for a free enterprise system that is fair an accountable, none of the fire and brimstone he evoked in Rock Hill in the morning - a notable contrast given the definitiveness of his first speech of the day.
What had happened in between to possibly change Gingrich's mind? Nothing, the campaign insists. But a notable event occurred during Gingrich's second stop of the day, when a man in the audience offered a frowning critique of Gingrich's anti-Bain attacks.
"I hope you know I'm sincere when I say I think you're a great man" the man said at the Spartanburg Marriott before making an impassioned plea. "I'm here to implore one thing with you. I think you've missed the target on the way you're addressing Romney's weaknesses. I want to beg you to redirect and go after his obvious disingenuousness about his conservatism and lay off the corporatist versus the free market. I think it's nuanced -"
"I agree with you," Gingrich said, cutting him off. "It's an impossible theme to talk about with Obama in the background. Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect, which as a Reagan Republican frankly never occurred to me until it happened. I agree with you entirely."
This exchange had one news outlet running the headline that Gingrich had admitted to "crossing the line," words Gingrich never used and a characterization flatly rejected by his staff.
"The Speaker agrees that it's a difficult topic to have a conversation about because of President Obama's class warfare. But he's NOT saying it's a conversation we shouldn't have," said R.C. Hammond, in a statement.
Still, Gingrich began the day delivering a speech that painted in broad strokes a picture of Mitt Romney being in cahoots with crony capitalists; by the time he was interviewed by Van Susteren, he had boiled his complaint down to a focused critique of the former Massachusetts governor.
"I think if Governor Romney thinks there's nothing there he ought to just hold a press conference, walk the news media through it, explain how it was done, let people see it," he said. "But I find it strange that they are so sensitive on this issue that they've sort of pushed the panic button. But understand me, this is not about free enterprise. This is about the character, values and judgment of a particular person who is running for president of the United States and it strikes me, just as with his record as governor, where his record is very different from his advertising. He owes the country some candor and he owes the country some facts, that's all I'm saying."