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With polls tightening, a new Romney attack line on Gingrich: 'leadership by chaos.'

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 CNN poll released Wednesday showed Romney leading with the support of 33 percent of likely voters, Gingrich with 23 percent, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with 19 percent, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas with 13 percent, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry with 6 percent.

The four-night survey included only one night of calls after the Monday debate. Nonetheless, it showed Romney's lead dropping from 19 points two weeks ago to 10 points.

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."

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