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 Romney" — 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.
Tapping into the state's religious fervor at his Rock Hill rally, Gingrich pledged to fight "anti-Christian bigotry." In TV ads, he chided Romney for being inconsistent in opposing abortion.
Perry pushed his patriotism in a state with a large military presence. He highlighted his service as an Air Force pilot with a new TV ad featuring veterans praising his character.
Ron Paul, who finished second in New Hampshire, made a more unusual appeal to service members and veterans, emphasizing his anti-war message.
He told a cheering crowd of about 300 in West Columbia that the U.S. should bring its soldiers home from war and stop meddling in other countries' affairs. Paul said military personnel are sick of wars that drain the nation's resources and hurt families.
All the candidates were campaigning in the state Wednesday. Perry, who skimped on New Hampshire to focus on South Carolina, had already been there for days.
Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who nearly tied Romney in the Iowa caucuses, assured supporters in Ridgeway that he wasn't ready to drop his challenge. "It's not just going to be here. It's going to be Florida and beyond," he said.
Obama's team, treating Romney as their likely general election opponent, has joined the effort to darken the picture of his days in private enterprise. Vice President Joe Biden said Romney had worried more about investors doing well than he did about the employees of companies bought by his venture capital firm.
Romney offered a practical-minded defense of layoffs that might not reassure voters worried about holding onto their jobs. "Every time we had a reduction in employment it was designed to try and make the business more successful and, ultimately, to grow it," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."
He also turned the issue on Obama, saying that the president's "been a venture capitalist at Solyndra," the solar company that received a $528 million government loan before going bankrupt, sparking outrage and investigations.
TV ads are filling South Carolina's airwaves, including negative spots like the Gingrich one assailing Romney on abortion, an issue that resonates strongly with evangelicals who make up the GOP's base here.
"He governed pro-abortion," the Gingrich ad says. "Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney: He can't be trusted."
About $3.5 million has been spent on TV ads in South Carolina, the bulk of it by Perry and a supportive super PAC. But that doesn't count the $3.4 million a pro-Gingrich group has pledged to spend to go after Romney, or the $2.3 million a pro-Romney group plans to spend in the coming days.
Santorum and a super PAC friendly to him also are pouring money into the state, as is an outside group working on Huntsman's behalf.
— — — Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey, Brian Bakst and Charles Babington in South Carolina and Connie Cass in Washington contributed to this report. (Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)