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Gingrich says plenty about GOP rivals but says shots are not attacks

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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks to supporters Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Making his last pre-Christmas campaign stop, Newt Gingrich maintained that he would not attack his fellow Republican candidates, although he still had plenty to say about his top rivals in Iowa: Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

Gingrich seemed to take more direct shots at Paul, saying during a speech before an outdoor audience of at least 300, that Paul is "the only person I know who’s for a weaker military than Barack Obama."

"We ought to be honest about this. His positions are fundamentally wrong on national security. I do not agree with him that America is at fault for 9/11. I do not agree with him that we can ignore an Iranian nuclear weapon and I do not agree with him that it's okay that Israel disappears."

Later, when asked by a reporter about controversial articles published in Paul’s former newsletter (which Paul has disavowed), Gingrich said Paul needed to clarify how he profited from the publication, and suggested Paul's professed obliviousness to the articles made him unfit for the White House.

"I mean, these kinds of things are really nasty. And he didn’t know about it? He wasn't aware of it? But he's sufficiently ready to be president?"

And while not overtly attacking Romney, Gingrich several times characterized him as a "Massachusetts moderate," questioning his claims to a conservative record but adding that he would not say anything stronger than that about his opponent.

Later during a media availability, Gingrich again denied that the "moderate" moniker was a jab at Romney. "How could you think that was a criticism?" he asked NBC News. "I think it’s an accurate description of who he is."

When asked by a supporter whether he would respond to Romney’s Iowa-based attacks by "telling the truth" about Romney’s record as a moderate governor, Gingrich responded, "that would be so painful."

What "got my goat," Gingrich added, was when Romney called him "not a reliable conservative."

"Let me get this straight. The Massachusetts moderate who did not support Reagan/Bush and did not support the Contract with America wonders if I am a reliable conservative. How would he know?" Gingrich asked.

And while Gingrich maintains that President Obama is his only opponent, he has begun issuing a similar challenge to Romney as he has to Obama: a one-on-one debate.

"I’ll bring his negative ads and he can explain them. And so far he has not seemed as excited by the opportunity as I thought he would be."

One supporter tried to give Gingrich fodder against Romney, asking him if he was familiar with a story that showed Romney's company Bain Capital squeezed profits out of a South Carolina-based company by slashing jobs there in the early 1990s.

Gingrich said he was not familiar with the story but told the woman that if she wanted to "share that with your six thousand closest friends, that’s certainly your prerogative."

While Gingrich said he was not familiar with that local issue, he demonstrated a grasp of other South Carolina-centric concerns, including the modernization of the Charleston port, a crucial center for jobs in the state’s Lowcountry.

He also stayed neutral on another hot-button local issue: the presence of the Confederate flag in public places, an issue which tripped up Sen. John McCain during the 2008 primary here (until 2000, the flag flew over the statehouse, at which point it was relocated to a memorial directly in front of the capital).

"I have a very strong opinion. It’s up to the people of South Carolina," Gingrich responded to an audience member’s question, eliciting cheers and a standing ovation from many in the crowd.