COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina may be the best and last chance for Mitt Romney's rivals to halt his momentum toward the Republican presidential nomination, but they went on the defensive Wednesday for attacking Romney's record as a venture capitalist.
"There is enormous pressure in the establishment not to bring up things. Don't talk about who got all the money. Don't raise questions,'' former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said in Rock Hill, S.C. "I am prepared to stand up to every level of pressure."
Gingrich and Rick Perry in particular have aggressively questioned Romney's record, which includes cases where his firm made millions off firms that laid off workers or went under. The attacks have drawn strong rebukes from many conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh.
Perry shied from the subject entirely during a stop in Columbia, while earlier he said, "the idea we can't criticize someone for these get-rich-quick schemes is inappropriate from my perspective."
Romney brushed off the chatter, bounding on stage with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Columbia. He did not gloat over Tuesday's victory in New Hampshire nor focus on his rivals. Instead he bore down on his plans to fix the economy.
"Remember the president was going to get America working again?" Romney said in the capital of the state with 9.9 percent unemployment. "He's failed."
At the same time, Romney's campaign demonstrated how well positioned he is to win the nomination. Most of the candidates are struggling to prove their viability in South Carolina's Jan. 21 primary, while Romney is already looking toward Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
He announced he has $19 million in his campaign account, began airing Spanish-language TV ads in Florida, and prepared to head to Florida today to campaign in West Palm Beach and attend a fundraiser that could raise $1 million at the Palm Beach home of Miami Dolphins co-owner Steve Ross.
A new Quinnipiac University poll showed Romney leading the Republican field in Florida with 36 percent support, trailed by Gingrich with 24 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 16 percent, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul with 10 percent, Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 5 percent, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman with 2 percent.
Bolstering Romney's argument that he's the strongest candidate to beat President Barack Obama, the poll also showed Romney leading Obama in Florida, 46 percent to 43 percent. Democrats questioned the poll's validity, noting that even though Florida has about 500,000 more Democrats than Republicans, Quinnipiac surveyed more Republicans.
South Carolina, where Romney finished fourth in 2008, was expected to be a challenge for him this year, but he is leading in the polls, helped by a crowded field of Republicans fracturing much of the GOP vote.
Perry, who bypassed New Hampshire's primary, has made the strongest claim to South Carolina as a springboard past Romney, but his struggles followed him Wednesday into Doc's Barbeque & Southern Buffet in the shadow of the University of South Carolina's football stadium. The crowd seemed mainly there for lunch and thinned out as he arrived, 15 minutes late.
He stuck to a message about the economy and debt and blasted Obama's administration for holding up a proposed oil pipeline from Canada.
"Ask yourself this question: Am I better off today than I was $4 trillion ago?" Perry said.
What Perry did not do was attack front-runner Romney, let alone mention him by name. The closest he came was when he suggested voters need to elect someone who will do what they say on the campaign trail, and later when he discounted the results in Iowa and New Hampshire. Those states, he said, are where candidates practice speeches, where the field is narrowed.
"South Carolina," he added, "picks presidents."
Huntsman, too, stayed away from direct confrontations with Romney during a stop at the University of South Carolina, only saying to a packed student audience that voters do not want the "establishment" to decide the winner.
"I'm a shameless political salesman," he said. "I just have one request for you: I want your vote."
Huntsman later denounced the attacks by Perry and Gingrich over Romney's dealings with private equity firm Bain Capital, saying failure is part of capitalism. He said the solution was to build an economy with enough jobs so that those who lose theirs have other opportunities.
"I think it's more instructive to look at Gov. Romney's record as governor," Huntsman said. "He was elected to represent his people for four years, what did he do for the economy? He didn't deliver any big bold economic proposals. I delivered the largest tax cut in the history of my state."
His problem, though, was on display as the crowd shuffled out. A number of attendees said they were headed to Romney's event down the street, still not sold that Huntsman is the one.
Ron Paul also swung through Columbia for a noon rally at the airport. His audience was hundreds deep, boisterous and eager as the candidate delivered his standard assault on the size of the federal government and erosion of personal liberties.
"I think we sent out a pretty positive message last night," Paul said of his finish in New Hampshire. "South Carolina is next."
Paul is far less organized in South Carolina, and he urged his troops to work tirelessly.
While the odds are still against Paul getting the nomination, his supporters could hurt Romney if enough follow the path of 22-year-old Austin Oelhafea. He said if Romney is the nominee, he will not support him in the election against Obama.
"I'll probably just write in Ron Paul's name on the ballot," he said. "Romney to me isn't that much different from Obama."
Santorum, who nearly tied Romney in the Iowa caucuses, assured supporters in Ridgeway that he wasn't ready to drop his challenge. "It's not just going to be here. It's going to be Florida and beyond," he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.