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Gingrich sends voters mixed signals as he kicks off SC tour

Rainier Ehrhardt / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, greet supporters Wednesday during a campaign stop at the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg, S.C.


SPARTANBURG, SC -- Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich attempted to set his campaign on a new track after landing in South Carolina Wednesday morning but seemed to change his tone by the end of his first day campaigning in the state.

"I'm frankly pretty fed up with the whole tone of America politics and the American government," Gingrich told the roughly 300 people at his town hall in Rock Hill, where his event had a rather populist tone.

"And crony capitalism, where people pay each other off at the expense of the rest of the country, is not free enterprise," Gingrich said. "Raising questions about that is not wrong."

The former House speaker has raised questions in recent days about Mitt Romney’s record as chief executive of Bain Capital. Some Republicans, including Romney himself, have pushed back at Gingrich over this. Romney on Tuesday accused "desperate Republicans" of teaming up with President Barack Obama in trying to divide America over envy.

At Gingrich's second town hall of the day Wednesday, an attendee questioned his tactics on the subject.

First reported by POLITICO, a South Carolina man told Gingrich: "I'm here to implore one thing of 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."

To which Gingrich responded: "I agree – I agree with you. I think 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 it frankly never occurred to me until it happened. So I agree with you entirely."

It appeared that Gingrich walked back his earlier comments about Bain, but the campaign says that's not the case.

"This issue at hand is neither about Bain Capital, private equity firms, nor about capitalism. It is about Mitt Romney's judgment and character. It was Governor Romney's decision to base his candidacy, in large part, on his background as a portfolio manager. Thus, it is entirely legitimate to ask questions about whether he is accurately presenting how he conducted himself during that career," Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in a statement.

But Gingrich did not bring up crony capitalism at all during his third and final event Wednesday in the Palmetto State, which votes Jan. 21.

Hammond says the campaign is "absolutely not" having doubts about the Romney attacks or "contrasts" thus far.

Gingrich’s campaign had billed Wednesday as a pivoting point in the race, saying Gingrich was to deliver a "defining" speech because people are "frustrated" and Washington hasn’t been listening. While the first speech did take on a few new themes, by the end of the afternoon, his stump speech was back to what he has been saying for a few weeks.