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 at his first stop but did so at a later event in South Carolina, which holds a primary on January 21 and will be the next battleground in the Republican race.
He also did not directly attack 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 in the state raising that issue.
But Gingrich told reporters 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.
At a later event in Spartanburg, however, he seemed to agree with a questioner who said he should be attacking Romney for his lack of conservatism and "lay off the corporatist" attacks.
"Obama just makes it impossible to talk rationally in that area because he is so deeply into class warfare that automatically you get an echo effect," 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. Gingrich is in second place as he, 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 audience.
"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 a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent.
It calls him a "pro-abortion" governor and ends with the quote: "Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney: He can't be trusted."
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)