Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney carries food as he leaves… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Charleston, Spartanburg and — Mitt Romney waged a new onslaught against Newt Gingrich on Wednesday amid signs that the former House speaker was gaining traction in his drive to emerge as the sole viable alternative for the Republican presidential nomination.
In a rare departure from his usual practice of ignoring GOP rivals and engaging President Obama instead, Romney ridiculed Gingrich for taking credit for millions of jobs created when he served in Congress.
"Congressmen taking responsibility or taking credit for helping create jobs is like [former Vice President] Al Gore taking credit for the Internet," Romney told supporters at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.
At the same time, Romney, who takes credit for job gains on his watch as governor of Massachusetts, dispatched former GOP members of Congress to denounce Gingrich as a "chaotic" speaker whose failings helped President Clinton win reelection.
Gingrich took the new assault as a good sign.
"I fully expect the Romney campaign to be unendingly dirty and dishonest for the next four days because they are desperate," he told hundreds of cheering supporters at Bobby's BBQ in Warrenville, S.C. "They thought they could buy this. They're discovering they can't buy this."
Romney's new assault came as a poll found the race tightening in South Carolina's GOP primary, scheduled for Saturday. The Time/CNN survey of likely voters found Romney's support slipping to 33%, while Gingrich's had climbed to 23%.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was third, with 16%, followed by Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 13% and Texas Gov. Rick Perry at 6%.
The candidates are scheduled to debate again Thursday. Gingrich has begun running a new ad featuring his applause lines from Monday's debate.
"More people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in history," Gingrich says in the ad. Even if it "makes liberals unhappy, I'm going to continue to find ways to help poor people learn how to get a job, learn how to get a better job, and learn someday to own the job."
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin cited Gingrich's remarks in that debate as part of the reason why she would vote for him if she lived in South Carolina.
"Newt came out just like South Carolina's own Smokin' Joe Frazier," she told CNN. "He came out there swinging, talking about work, talking about jobs and work ethic."
In Warrenville, Gingrich told reporters that new Romney campaign Web videos featuring former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent and former New York Rep. Susan Molinari denouncing his House speakership were "stupid."
"Where do they get the gall to run this kind of ad?" he asked.
Gingrich also urged conservatives to reject Santorum.
"My pitch is if conservatives come together, we beat Romney decisively," he said. "If conservatives are split, he might squeak through with a plurality."
On Fox News, Santorum fought back. "We've had good solid policy proposals, as opposed to some of the irresponsible ones that Newt has thrown out there and irresponsible statements," he said. If Gingrich wins the nomination, he said, voters may "wake up in the morning and look at the newspaper and say, 'Oh, my gosh, he didn't say that, did he?' "
Times staff writer John Hoeffel in Spartanburg, S.C., contributed to this report.