WASHINGTON - Newt Gingrich's revenge fantasies about Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney appeared to be bearing some fruit on Thursday following the release of a damning, 28-minute attack ad with a Canadian angle.
Gingrich supporters are spending millions in South Carolina in advance of next week's crucial primary, particularly on "When Mitt Romney Came To Town," the hotly anticipated spot that portrays Romney as a ruthless corporate raider while head of private equity firm Bain Capital in the 1980s and '90s.
The spot delves into what happened to four companies targeted by Bain, and tells of a Florida factory run by UniMac, an industrial washing machine manufacturer that later merged with a larger firm, Alliance Laundry.
Wisconsin-based Alliance was taken over by Bain in 1994, then sold in 2005 — long after Romney's departure from the investment firm — at a 230 per cent profit to the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, sponsored by the Ontario Teachers' Federation and the provincial government.
The Florida Unimac factory was eventually shuttered, resulting in layoffs for 830 workers in three states, according to "When Mitt Romney Came To Town."
"What do teachers know about washing machines?" one of those workers asks in the spot.
The Gingrich campaign's relentless crusade against Romney seemed to be taking its toll in South Carolina. A new poll suggests Gingrich is right behind Romney in the so-called Palmetto state, where the former Massachusetts governor enjoyed a substantial lead just a week ago.
According to the survey by InsiderAdvantage/Majority Opinion Research, Romney has 23 per cent support of the state's primary voters, many of them staunch social conservatives and evangelicals. Gingrich is at 21 per cent, while Rick Santorum is at 14 per cent.
Libertarian Ron Paul, the strong second-place finisher in the New Hampshire primary earlier this week, is right behind the former Pennsylvania senator at 13 per cent.
Conservative anti-Romney forces are hard at work in advance of the South Carolina primary, which has a symbolic importance to the Republican party. Since 1980, every winning candidate in the state has gone on to win the party's nomination.
In Texas on Friday, a group of the country's leading evangelicals are meeting to discuss ways to put the brakes to the Romney juggernaut.
They want a strong social conservative to take on President Barack Obama in November, and have long distrusted Romney's socially moderate record as Massachusetts governor, as well as his Mormon faith.
There were suggestions on Thursday that the group will push at least one of the three most socially conservative candidates — Gingrich, Santorum and Rick Perry — to drop out of the race in order to allow the remaining candidate to amass enough support to deny Romney the state of South Carolina.
The trouble is, which one? The thrice-married Gingrich's personal baggage is said to be a concern for evangelicals, who prefer Santorum.
But the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is not the type to bow out when the going is good. He's also on a mission to hurt the front-runner, blaming negative ads broadcast in Iowa by Romney supporters for hurting him badly in the state's caucuses.
"It's not the style of any politician, never mind Gingrich, to fall on their sword for the good of the Christian conservative movement," Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Thursday.
"If they think they have a chance, they'll stay in. Both Gingrich and Santorum think they have a chance, and Perry will stay in until his wife tells him to get out. It's a fantasy for evangelicals to think that any of these three will willingly drop out, and so their meeting this weekend is too little, too late."
If any of the trio opt to exit the race, Jillson predicts, it won't happen until after South Carolina, and Romney is pulling ahead in the polls in the state of Florida, site of the next primary.
"There's still a good chance Romney will prevail in South Carolina, and he's already advertising heavily in Florida," he said. "Even if he stumbles in South Carolina, he's already preparing the groundwork in Florida for a comeback."
Nonetheless, Romney's historical back-to-back wins in Iowa and New Hampshire haven't given him the jolt of momentum his campaign expected in South Carolina. Not only are Gingrich's attacks on Romney apparently doing some damage, but the former speaker's representation of the western part of neighbouring Georgia for 20 years in Congress is also giving him a boost.
In addition to evangelicals plotting against Romney, a group of Tea Party activists are meeting in South Carolina with a similar aim: they want a small government proponent to take on Obama this year, and fear Romney's a big spender. Gingrich and Santorum are expected to speak to the Tea Party conference in Myrtle Beach over the weekend.
Gingrich's anti-Romney tactics were continuing to anger some prominent Republicans.
"What the hell are you doing?" is the question Rudy Giuliani said he'd like to ask Gingrich.
"I'm shocked at what they're doing," the former New York mayor, and one-time Republican presidential candidate, said on Fox News on Thursday of Gingrich and Texas Gov. Perry.
"I'm going to say it's ignorant, dumb. It is building something we should be fighting in America: ignorance of the American economic system. Playing on the dumbest, most ridiculous ideas about how you grow jobs."
Gingrich defended himself against such attacks. He insisted he's not against free enterprise, but is simply asking tough questions about Bain tactics.
"This rattled a number of so-called conservatives who said to challenge where the money went and to challenge what deals were cut is anti-free enterprise," he said as he campaigned in South Carolina.
He also tied his criticism of Romney's Bain tactics to the big bank bailouts detested by many fiscal conservatives among the Republican party base.
"We deserve to know why these big banks got bailed out and folks with a mortgage and folks with a house somehow couldn't," Gingrich said, sounding as though he'd borrowed a page from the Occupy Wall Street how-to manual.
Other conservatives have raised concerns that Gingrich's tactics are handing a gift to Democrats as they prepare their own plan of attack against Romney. Some liberals, however, fear the din of the Bain attacks is so loud right now that it will surely quiet down closer to the presidential election.
"I would have preferred to wait, yes, to keep the bottle of whoop-ass fresher," an Obama campaign strategist told the Talking Points Memo website on Thursday.
"At the same time — and this is important to note — having the Republicans eat their own actually makes the Bain story more potent than we ever could, because it instantly validates it as a line of attack and falls on independent ears as a matter of legitimate debate, not as a partisan line of attack."