Conservatives urged Mitt Romney's rivals to tone down criticism of the Republican front-runner, fearing they will undermine the party's pro-business identity and damage its chances of capturing the White House from President Barack Obama.
Under fire, Romney rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry backed off Thursday from directly attacking Romney's tenure at the helm of the venture capital firm Bain Capital. They had been painting Romney as a job-killer.
Gingrich and Perry have been leading the charge against Romney ahead of the crucial Jan. 21 South Carolina primary. Romney won the first two nominating contests, in Iowa and New Hampshire, and South Carolina may be his opponents last chance to stop his momentum and prevent him from becoming the Republican presidential nominee.
Some conservatives are wary of Romney because of his shifting positions on abortion and other issues and his sponsorship, when he was Massachusetts governor, of a health care plan similar to one pursued by Obama that is widely disliked by Republicans.
Still, even conservatives and other Republicans with long histories of disagreeing with Romney have argued that the attacks on his business record weakened the party's chief argument against Obama, that federal intrusion has stymied the economy's recovery.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who ran against Romney four years ago, wrote in an online letter: "It's surprising to see so many Republicans embrace that left-wing argument against capitalism." Another 2008 foe, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News Channel: "I'm shocked at what they are doing. I'm going to say it's ignorant. Dumb. It's building something we should be fighting ignorance of the American economic system."
The U.S.Chamber of Commerce entered the debate Thursday, saying it was "foolish" for Republicans to bash Romney for his work as a venture capitalist.
Although the latest comments were more a rejection of attacks on Romney's record at Bain than an endorsement of Romney as a candidate, they signaled a warming toward Romney by a cross-section of Republicans as the party struggles to settle on a more conservative alternative. They also signaled that attempts by Gingrich, a former House speaker, and Perry, the Texas governor, to cast Romney as a cold-blooded predator in the business world appeared to be backfiring badly - and playing right into the Romney campaign's hands.
Under pressure, Gingrich on Thursday tempered his public attacks on Romney while defending his right to question Romney's business record.
"I think he owes the country a much more detailed answer about what his career was like," he said during a Fox News interview Thursday night of the questions he and his allies have raised about Romney's tenure as head of a private equity fund.
Perry told The Associated Press on Thursday that his criticism of Romney over businesses that failed under the control of Bain have gotten attention in South Carolina.
The Texas governor has felt blowback from conservatives who saw his criticism of what he called "vulture capitalism" as an affront to free-market values. A prominent Perry supporter has switched his allegiance to Romney over the issue.
The criticism of both Gingrich and Perry has been swift, with opponents former Pennsylvania Rep. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul refusing to attack Romney's time at Bain, and others fearful about bloodying the Republican most likely to become the party's nominee.
"If you believe what the Obama administration is doing is a direct assault on the private sector and as Republicans we believe that's the wrong approach, you can't turn around and say what is going on in the private sector is wrong," said Jim Dyke, a Republican strategist in South Carolina who is uncommitted to a candidate in the Jan. 21 primary.
Although presidential contender Jon Huntsman had criticized Romney for a comment he made about firing people, Huntsman said on Wednesday: "If you have creative destruction in capitalism, which has always been part of capitalism, it becomes a little disingenuous to take on Bain Capital."
Meanwhile on Thursday, the Obama campaign said it hauled in more than $68 million for his campaign and the Democratic Party during the final three months of 2011.
The infusion of money adds up to more than $220 million in 2011 for the president's re-election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, putting Obama far ahead of Republican presidential candidates.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now