COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the Republican presidential race in South Carolina tightening Friday, front-runner Mitt Romney launched a TV ad that portrays his tenure as the head of a private equity firm positively, while Newt Gingrich unveiled a Web spot mocking Romney's ability to speak French.
The nastiness that usually accompanies this state's presidential primaries continued to bubble to the surface as three polls released Friday showed a two-man contest shaping up, with Romney holding thin leads over Gingrich with little more than a week before the vote Jan. 21.
A South Carolina survey by the American Research Group showed Romney and Gingrich in a statistical tie. Romney led Gingrich among likely Republican voters by 29 percent to 25 percent, but the poll had a 4 percentage point margin of error. None of the other candidates was close.
A poll by Rasmussen Reports had Romney ahead of Gingrich by 28 percent to 21 percent, while a survey by the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling had Romney up 29 to 24 percent over Gingrich, with a 3.5-point error margin.
Never miss a local story.
Romney, in his second day of battling to beat back charges from his GOP rivals that he's an uncaring "vulture capitalist," cued up a 30-seond ad that touts his work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that sometimes laid off workers while attempting to turn companies around.
"This is a business Mitt Romney helped start," a female narrator says as the name of the Staples office-supply store appears on the screen in red letters. "And this one. And this steel mill," as the names of "Sports Authority" and "Steel Dynamics" appear.
Without naming Bain, the ad says, "Mitt Romney helped create and ran a company that invested in struggling businesses, grew new ones and rebuilt old ones, creating thousands of jobs."
The spot takes a veiled swipe at his GOP rivals, saying, "We expected the Obama administration to put free markets on trial, but as The Wall Street Journal said, 'Mr. Romney's GOP opponents are embarrassing themselves by taking the Obama line.' "
Indeed, an Obama campaign memo Friday pounced on Romney's business and job creation record.
"Romney closed over a thousand plants, stores and offices, and cut employee wages, benefits and pensions," Obama campaign aide Stephanie Cutter wrote in a memo addressed to "interested parties." "He laid off American workers and outsourced their jobs to other countries. And he and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars while taking companies to bankruptcy."
Gingrich, in an interview taped Thursday night in Miami for the Spanish-language network Telemundo's show "Enfoque" Sunday, said his attacks on Romney weren't attacks on the free-market system. Several Republicans, including influential South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, have said the Bain-bashing by some Republican candidates makes them sound like Democrats.
"Well, let me say, first of all, the criticism is not of capitalism. It's not of free markets. It's not even of Bain as a company," Gingrich said, according to a transcript supplied by Telemundo. "The question is, Gov. Romney said he created 100,000 jobs. ... I've been challenging him to share with us the details. I mean, why should we believe his claim if he's not willing to actually tell us what happened at Bain?"
Bain, a privately held company, hasn't provided documentation to back up Romney's claim to have created 100,000 jobs on balance when he ran it.
While Romney chastised his GOP critics in a TV ad, Gingrich blasted the former Massachusetts governor in a 60-second Web ad titled "The French Connection." The spot compares Romney to two former Democratic presidential nominees from Massachusetts, former Gov. Mike Dukakis and Sen. John Kerry.
"Just like John Kerry," the male voiceover says, "he speaks French, too" before cutting to a clip of Romney speaking French in a video message for the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, for which he was the CEO.
Romney isn't the only candidate who's bilingual. In the Telemundo interview, Jose Diaz-Balart asked Gingrich all but one question in Spanish, and the Georgia Republican responded without a translator, a network spokeswoman said.
If going after Romney for foreign language skills seems desperate, Gingrich acknowledged that these are desperate times for him after Romney's victories in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Asked what happens if he loses the Palmetto State, Gingrich told Telemundo, "Then I'm in deep trouble."
"I'm pretty straight about this business," he said. "Romney's had a pretty good run. Not a great run, but a good run. ... If he can win South Carolina, then I think he has a very powerful lead in getting to be the nominee."
The rest of the Republican presidential hopefuls are in the same boat. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania delivered a Bain-free attack on Romney at a campaign event Friday in Rock Hill, S.C. But he aggressively questioned Romney's conservative credentials and depicted the GOP front-runner as an untrustworthy flip-flopper.
"He has changed his opinion on about every issue out there," Santorum told a crowd of 200 people.
Holding up a finger as if to test which way the wind was blowing, Santorum said, "There may be other people who speak these words, that's what America wants to (hear) today. We need people who have the strength and the core convictions to fight for what they believe is right."
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, speaking at the Squat 'N' Gobble diner in Bluffton, S.C., said his being a Washington outsider was the main reason to vote for him.
"They're either Wall Street insiders or they're Washington insiders," he said of his GOP rivals. "I'm the only outsider that will go to Washington, D.C., and overhaul that place."
The fight for South Carolina has a week to go but the GOP candidates already are looking ahead to the Florida primary Jan. 31, where nearly 107,780 absentee ballots already have been filed.
After drinking two cafe cubanos, a caffeinated Gingrich told a morning crowd in Miami that Obama has been weak on Latin American foreign policy. Cuban-Americans are a large part of South Florida Republicans.
"Surely Washington can look south, can look 90 miles beyond our shores," he said. "My goal as president will be to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring. ... We need to have a new government in Venezuela, just as we need a new government in Iran."
The Public Policy Polling South Carolina survey was an automated telephone poll of 803 likely Republican primary voters Wednesday through Friday. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The Rasmussen Reports South Carolina poll was conducted Thursday with 750 likely Republican voters. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The American Research Group poll was conducted Wednesday and Thursday with 600 telephone interviews among a random sample of likely Republican primary voters who live in South Carolina: 476 Republicans, 120 independents and 4 Democrats. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.
(Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer, Kyle Peterson of The Beaufort Gazette/The Island Packet, and Marc Caputo and Patricia Mazzei of The Miami Herald contributed to this story from South Carolina.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY