CHARLESTON, S.C. — Fighting to protect his lead in South Carolina, Mitt Romney's campaign hit back hard Wednesday at chief rival Newt Gingrich, accusing him of "leadership by chaos" that cost the Republican Party once and would again.
Gingrich, sensing a tide turning his way just days before the pivotal first-in-the South primary on Saturday, warned voters to be on guard against smears from a suddenly worried Romney. "They're desperate," he said.
The sniping underscored how much and how fast the race has changed this week as Romney fears losing his double-digit lead thanks to missteps of his own and a commanding debate performance by Gingrich on Monday.
They face each other again Thursday night in Charleston, their rivalry the centerpiece of a five-person debate televised nationally on CNN starting at 8 p.m. EST.
A new NBC-Marist poll released Thursday showed Gingrich gaining on Romney.
Romney led by 15 points, 37-22 on Monday evening, before a debate in Myrtle Beach where Gingrich delivered a strong performance. After that debate sank in, Romney led by just 5 points, 31-26, on Tuesday night.
The numbers on Tuesday were very different than the numbers on Monday, says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, which conducted the survey.
Romney showed signs of worry Wednesday that he's losing ground to Gingrich.
Top Romney allies who served in the U.S. House of Representatives when Gingrich was speaker told reporters that Gingrich was an erratic leader who made it hard to govern and who invited a backlash from voters that helped Democratic President Bill Clinton win re-election in 1996 and cost the party congressional seats in 1998. Republicans forced Gingrich out after the 1998 elections.
"I can only describe his (Gingrich's) style as leadership by chaos," former Rep. Susan Molinari, R-N.Y., said in a call to reporters set up by Romney's campaign. "If he were to become the nominee ... the Republican Party loses. We do not want Speaker Gingrich to help elect another Democratic president."
"The speaker is running as a reliable conservative leader ... he's not that. He is not reliable," said former Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who also served in the House. "Yes, he can say exciting things. He also says things that undermine the conservative movement and he says them in destructive ways."
As an example, Talent told how Gingrich threw the idea of orphanages into the early push for welfare reform, threatening prospects for the landmark legislation. "I spent two months putting that to bed because the welfare bill had nothing to do with orphanages. ... He almost killed that bill before it was even born," Talent said.
Campaigning in Spartanburg, Romney belittled Gingrich's boast of helping create jobs during the Reagan administration.
"He had been in Congress two years when Ronald Reagan came to office," the former governor of Massachusetts said. "That'd be like saying 435 congressmen were all responsible for those jobs. Government doesn't create jobs. It's the private sector that creates jobs. Congressmen taking responsibility or taking credit for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet."
Romney did not address the brouhaha over his personal taxes, which started when he said in Monday's debate that he might release his tax records in April after clinching the nomination, and which grew Tuesday when he revealed that his tax bill is only about 15 percent.
One of his own high-profile supporters said Wednesday he should not wait.
"If you have tax returns to put out, you should put them out. You should put them out sooner rather than later," New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on MSNBC. "It's always better in my view to have disclosure, especially when you're the front-runner."
Looking to seize the opening, Gingrich said Wednesday that he paid 31 percent of his income in taxes, though he did not say whether that was for federal taxes only or included state and local taxes.
"My goal is not to raise Mitt Romney's taxes, but to let everyone pay Romney's rate," he said.
Appearing in Warrenville, Gingrich said Romney is running scared.
"This will be unendingly dirty and dishonest for the next four days," he told a raucous crowd at Bobby's Bar-B-Q. "They thought they could buy this. They're discovering they can't buy this. ... I think their internal polls show them losing. I think they'll do anything at any level."
Fighting to salvage his campaign, Perry traveled Wednesday to Greer, meeting with relatively small crowds. Often, reporters and the governor's security detail and campaign staff outnumbered South Carolina voters.
Perry spokesman Mark Miner said the Texas governor would not be dropping out prior to Saturday's primary. "He's in the race to win and the people of South Carolina will decide this race — not pundits or gossip writers," Miner said.
At Perry's keynote speech at Southern Thymes restaurant, about 80 people crammed a small room to hear him speak. About 20 of them were college students from Mercer University — a Georgia school — who were transported by the campaign.
(Marc Caputo of The Miami Herald and Dave Montgomery of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram contributed.)
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