CHARLESTON, S.C. – The audience at a presidential forum here Saturday booed Newt Gingrich for criticizing Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital after Mike Huckabee, the host, told the crowd that candidates would not be allowed to attack each other.
Before the five candidates (Ron Paul was not there) came out one by one for approximately 12 minutes of audience questions, Huckabee explained that they were “not to mention, and not to attack the other candidates.” (The audience, prompted at first by the Huckabee show’s executive producer, clapped and cheered at the directive.)
Gingrich, the third candidate to speak, responded to question about how he could “defend the vilification of companies that are willing to put capital at risk in order to save failing companies” -- a reference to attacks by Gingrich and his super PAC over Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
Pushing back on the claim of “vilification,” Gingrich said, “I haven’t done that.”
He began to say he would be visiting the city of Georgetown, which used to be home to a steel mill whose parent company was bought out by Bain in 1993 and went bankrupt in 2001 with more than $500 million in debt according to a Myrtle Beach Sun News account.
“Georgetown has a steel mill. Which was closed. Capital wasn’t put at risk; capital was drained out of that company,” Gingrich said. “Governor Romney ran saying he created 100 thousand jobs in the private sector…”
The audience started booing Gingrich after he said, “Governor Romney.”
Huckabee interrupted Gingrich, saying, “Mr. Speaker, we said we will not allow negative…”
Then Gingrich, retooling, continued, “I’m just trying to answer his question. So let me say it differently.”
“OK,” Huckabee replied.
“I believe that it’s fair to ask the records be clear and that people reveal what happened,” Gingrich said. “But I think to ask questions about a particular company is not the same as attacking capitalism and I don’t see how you can expect us to have a presidential campaign in which an entire sector is avoided."
Several audience members at the forum told NBC News they were displeased at Gingrich’s singling Romney out.
“I think Gingrich lost my respect,” said Janice Shumpert, 57, of West Ashley, who said she was leaning towards Rick Santorum. “It was a bad moment for him. I’m not saying he can’t recover but at this point, I wouldn’t vote for him”
Randy Hinson, 56, of Charleston, said the booing was “appropriate” because “that wasn’t the format.”
“Gingrich actually ruled himself out today for me,” Hinson said. “I guess Romney was at the top for me; I wanted Gingrich, and Gingrich kind of talked himself out of it today.”
Pat Neumann, 58, of Edisto Island, who said she favored Perry, noted the enthusiastic response Huckabee received when he said the forum was to be devoid of negativity.
“We weren’t going to put up with that,” she said of candidate-on-candidate aggression. “It’s going to happen because unfortunately negative campaigning works, and they know it. But people just weren’t going to put up with it today.”