Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich called on supporters on Friday to correct or scrap a just-released documentary that portrays rival Mitt Romney as a corporate raider who cost thousands of Americans their jobs.
It was a dramatic turnaround for Gingrich, who had hammered Republican front-runner Romney over his role in the 1980s and 1990s at Bain Capital LLC, which bought companies and overhauled them.
Gingrich said he would instead spend the next week criticizing Romney's stint as governor of Massachusetts, where he steered a moderate course on issues like abortion, taxes and gun control.
"He can't defend his governor's record, it's too liberal for South Carolina," Gingrich told reporters at an event in Duncan, South Carolina.
The former U.S. House of Representatives speaker continued chiding Romney on Friday for his record in business, but his appeal to Winning Our Future, a pro-Gingrich group separate from his campaign, came as he faced increasing pressure to back off such attacks.
Winning Our Future, a "super" political action committee than can raise unlimited funds, sponsored the anti-Romney documentary "King of Bain."
Clips of the film are being aired in ads for Gingrich before South Carolina's Jan. 21 Republican primary. The primary is widely seen as perhaps the last chance for conservatives to stop Romney from running away with the Republican presidential nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.
Gingrich has drawn criticism from some conservative and business leaders who say he is attacking free enterprise, a tenet of Republican politics.
Many South Carolina voters do not appear to hold Romney's business record against him - even in Gaffney, the town where Bain opened and then shuttered a photo-album manufacturer two decades ago, eliminating 150 jobs.
"He actually took those companies over to make them strong and make money. That's business sense," said Carroll Hammons, an underemployed tool-and-die worker in Gaffney.
Gingrich and Winning Our Future have been besieged by complaints about the accuracy of the anti-Romney film.
Fact checkers at the Washington Post called it a "highly misleading portrayal of Romney's years at Bain Capital."
At a campaign stop in Orlando, Florida, hours after that review was published, Gingrich called on the PAC to "either edit out every single mistake or pull the entire film."
The film uses footage of distraught middle-class Americans who blame Romney's deal-making for their woes, and mixes images of closed businesses with clips of Romney that make him look vain, foolish or greedy.
Romney's campaign fought back on Friday, releasing a television ad in South Carolina that defended his record at Bain. During speeches to voters, Romney's theme was a defense of free enterprise.
The way to restore job growth is "not to walk away from free enterprise," but to "hold fast to the that system and make it work for the American people," Romney said at a campaign stop in Aiken, South Carolina.
The core message of Romney's campaign is that he has the business savvy to rebuild the U.S. economy, reduce unemployment and rebuild manufacturing because of his private-sector experience.
Gingrich questioned Romney's claim that he created tens of thousands of jobs at Bain and said that by contrast, he helped create 27 million jobs during his two decades in Congress.
The Bain attacks, if they were to take hold among voters, could leave Romney more vulnerable to assaults by Obama's campaign and PAC this fall, assuming Romney is the Republican nominee.
But many strategists said Gingrich's attacks appeared to have strengthened Romney by rallying party leaders who have worried the former governor of relatively liberal Massachusetts is too moderate.
Romney leads Gingrich in polls of voters in South Carolina. Four years ago, he lost the state badly to Senator John McCain, the eventual Republican nominee.
Capturing South Carolina would make Romney three-for-three in the state-by-state race to win the Republican nomination. Romney's previous wins came in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gingrich finished fourth in both those contests.
The fight between the two Republicans goes back to late December, when attack ads run by Romney supporters knocked Gingrich from the top spot in opinion polls in Iowa.
"Somebody (who) is running for president ought to have the courage to stand up for the truth," said Gingrich, who has scoffed at Romney's claim he could not control the actions of the PAC that supports him.
Earlier this week, Gingrich defended the "King of Bain" film, while emphasizing he had no relationship with the PAC that was releasing it.
In calling on Winning Our Future to re-examine the anti-Romney ad, Gingrich also urged Romney to edit or remove ads that Gingrich said contained "gross inaccuracies" about him.
Gingrich was in Florida on Friday to raise money and open a campaign office. Florida holds its presidential primary on Jan. 31. Romney held a 12-point lead over Gingrich in Florida in a Quinnipiac poll this week.
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.