By John Whitesides
ROCK HILL, South Carolina (Reuters) - Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich, back on conservative turf in South Carolina, warned on Wednesday that nominating a "moderate" like Mitt Romney was a recipe for defeat in November's election.
A day after a poor fourth-place finish in New Hampshire, Gingrich urged South Carolina conservatives to rally around his candidacy or face the likelihood Romney will be the Republican challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
"I don't believe any moderate can debate Barack Obama successfully because there is not a big enough gap between the two of them," the former House speaker told an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 at a Rock Hill country club.
"If you are going to defeat Barack Obama, you are only going to defeat him with a conservative," he said.
Gingrich did not mention Romney by name but made it clear which candidate he was talking about during his first campaign stop in South Carolina, which holds a primary on January 21 and will be the next battleground in the Republican race.
He also steered clear of raising Romney's work for private equity fund Bain Capital, which critics say plundered companies and slashed jobs, including some in South Carolina. A political action committee that backs Gingrich plans to spend at least $3.4 million on ads in the state raising that issue.
Gingrich told reporters after the event that Romney's work at the company was fair game for criticism and rejected Republicans who have urged the candidates to back off the attacks.
"If you are going to run a presidential campaign based on a record, the record has to be open to review. This is not anti-capitalism, that is the smokescreen of those who are afraid to be accountable," he said.
Romney, the front-runner and former Massachusetts governor, has won the first two nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire and could take a big step toward clinching the nomination with a win in conservative South Carolina.
Romney leads opinion polls in the state, with Gingrich in second place as Gingrich, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Governor Rick Perry continue to split the conservative vote.
"I believe I am the only conservative who has the capacity to unify the conservative movement," Gingrich told the Rock Hill crowd.
'INARTICULATE, MODERATE AND NO RECORD'
"I do not believe we can defeat Obama if we have someone who is either inarticulate, moderate or has no record of achievement," he said in reference to his rivals.
Gingrich focused most of his criticism during the stop on Obama, launching a populist attack on what he said was his administration's culture of "crony capitalism" and anti-religious bigotry.
South Carolina has a big population of social and religious conservatives and Gingrich's campaign is airing a television ad questioning Romney's conversion as Massachusetts governor from an abortion rights supporter to an abortion rights opponent.
It calls him a "pro-abortion" governor and ends with the narrator saying: "Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney: He can't be trusted."
Gingrich did not mention abortion during the Rock Hill speech, the first of three he will make in South Carolina.
Gingrich, who is from neighboring Georgia but has not lived there since he left Congress, has said South Carolina will be a must-win contest for his campaign, which focused early on organizing the state.
"I believe he will be our best candidate to get Obama out of the White House," said Gingrich supporter Mae Queen, a retired laborer from nearby Fort Mill, South Carolina. "He is the one who will do what he says."
Gingrich said South Carolina, which has picked the winner of the Republican race every year since it launched its primary in 1980, was the "crossroads" of the Republican presidential fight.
"The issue is ultimately going to be between a Reagan conservative and a Massachusetts moderate," he said of his showdown with Romney.
"I think as his record is better known, he will grow weaker and weaker very fast because his record is to the left of voters in South Carolina," he said.
(Editing by Peter Cooney)