Reporting from Londonderry, N.H.—With polls tightening in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sparred over their private sector experience Monday as they campaigned less than 20 miles apart, each insisting that they would ultimately become the Republican presidential nominee.
After fielding questions from employees at Insight Technology in Londonderry, Gingrich bristled at Romney’s suggestion during a morning appearance on Fox News that he should return $1.6 million in payments that he received for advising mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The exchange between the two men, who are battling for the top spot in the polls just three weeks before the voting begins, illustrated the dangers for Republicans of a drawn-out race for their party’s nomination.
Gingrich has been unapologetic about his firm’s work for Freddie Mac, arguing that the Gingrich Group offered strategic advice to a variety of companies that did not include lobbying. But his advisory role for the federally backed mortgage lender is certain to be a problem for some voters since Gingrich, along with many of his fellow Republicans, fault the practices at Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for causing the collapse of the housing market.
Romney has been under fire from Democrats for his work at the private equity firm Bain Capital, which he headed for 15 years. The former Massachusetts governor argues on the campaign trail that he learned how to create jobs and help companies succeed through his experience at Bain.
But as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, associates who worked with Romney during that period of his career said his primary objective was maximizing the profits of the leveraged-buyout firm, often through downsizing companies and firing workers. Romney has tried to emphasize Bain’s success stories, including the launch of the Staples office chain, and has said his efforts to turn companies around and make them more efficient ultimately created tens of thousands of jobs.
Though Gingrich has promised a positive campaign, his pointed comments about Romney’s work at Bain and the barbs he directed Romney’s way at Saturday night’s debate suggest a pitched fight ahead for the nomination. Gingrich also could not resist a dig Monday about the $10,000 bet that Romney offered to Texas Gov. Rick Perry during the Des Moines debate.
“He must have been really sure of himself to bet that amount of money,” Gingrich told reporters in Londonderry. Gingrich demurred when asked whether the amount illustrated that Romney, whose net worth is estimated to be between $190 million and $250 million, is out of touch with the concerns of struggling Americans.
“You guys have to make that decision,” the former House speaker said. “I was startled just because I know Rick Perry pretty well. I can’t imagine that he could cover a bet like that. I mean, he’s been a public servant all his career.”
In responding to Gingrich's comments, the Romney campaign turned to Tom Stemberg, the founder of the Staples retail chain, in which Bain Capital was an early investor.
"It’s clear that after 30 years as a Washington insider, Newt Gingrich has no clue how the real world economy works," Stemberg said in a statement released by the campaign. "After 25 years in business, Mitt Romney understands how jobs come and go, and what we need to do to get our economy back on track."