* House Budget Chairman Ryan's budget plan at issue
* Ryan says Gingrich called him to apologize for remarks
* A media report says Gingrich had debt to jewelry firm (Adds Ryan radio comments, paragraphs 9-10)
By Kay Henderson
DES MOINES, May 17 Republican Newt Gingrich has hit a rough patch early in his U.S. presidential campaign, coming under sharp attack from an unexpected flank -- fellow conservatives.
The former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives ran afoul of some conservatives for daring to suggest that a budget blueprint proposed by Republican congressman Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, might go too far in overhauling Medicare.
And in another distraction, Politico reported that Gingrich carried as much as $500,000 in debt to jewelry company Tiffany between 2005 and 2006.
Gingrich only last week launched his bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, hoping to take on President Barack Obama, a Democrat. [ID:nN11195614]
Gingrich ran into trouble on the first day of a swing through Iowa on Monday, his first stop after an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" where he said when asked about the Ryan plan, "I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering."
The response was fast and furious from conservatives who see Ryan as part of an up-and-coming generation of Republican leaders.
"Gingrich to House GOP: Drop Dead," said an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.
"Newt absolutely cut him (Ryan) off at the knees," South Carolina Republican Governor Nikki Haley told CNN.
In a radio interview, Ryan said Gingrich telephoned him on Tuesday to apologize.
"I think he now understands the magnitude of his comments -- how wrong they were. And I think he's going to have more to say about that. And he's working on that. He basically called and apologized. And I accepted his apology," Ryan said.
SUPPORT FOR ASPECT OF HEALTH CARE LAW
On "Meet the Press," Gingrich also said he was in favor of a variation of a key element in the Obama healthcare law -- requiring Americans to buy health insurance. Many conservatives strongly oppose this so-called individual mandate.
Gingrich defended himself in an interview on Radio Iowa, saying he has long advocated repealing the healthcare law pushed through Congress by Obama and the president's fellow Democrats.
"I've said over and over, 'We should repeal it.' I mean, for people to go from all of that body of evidence to say, 'But yeah, for 25 seconds yesterday I thought you said X,' that's beyond gotcha," he said.
He said Republicans were angry at Obama for ramming through his healthcare plan, "and we just need to be a little cautious and make sure that we are very open and that we're willing to change things, that we're willing to listen."
Gingrich began his presidential campaign by focusing on Obama's handling of the U.S. economy and offering a traditional conservative panoply of proposals to generate job growth, such as cutting the corporate tax rate.
His comments on the Ryan plan reflected a political reality that older voters are likely to take a dim view of any major overhaul of Medicare, the federal health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Ryan would essentially turn the fee-for-service Medicare into a program of vouchers that seniors would use to buy subsidized health insurance from private insurers.
Republican strategist Scott Reed described Gingrich's predicament in this way: "He's having the political equivalent of a bad hair day." (Writing by Steve Holland; editing by Mary Milliken and Todd Eastham)