In a potentially pivotal GOP presidential debate, Newt Gingrich repeatedly found himself on the defensive Monday night, as Mitt Romney sharply assailed his record as House speaker and his work as a highly paid consultant to Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage giant.
Romney, reeling from a double-digit loss to Gingrich two days earlier in South Carolina, improved on his halting performances in recent debates but didn’t land a knockout blow.
Gingrich, who brought debate crowds to their feet last week, was restrained and passed up several opportunities to attack Romney. He also avoided his past attacks on the news media and, with an eye toward the more moderate electorate in next Tuesday’s Florida primary, muted his strident populist rhetoric.
The gloves came off at the start, with Romney saying he had learned from his recent that defeat not “to sit back and get attacked, day in and day out, without returning fire.”
Romney repeatedly asserted that Gingrich had to “resign in disgrace” when he stepped down from the speakership after the 1998 election and labeled him an “influence peddler” for his activities in Washington since then.
He used Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac to argue that his foe had been profiting from his connections while Americans suffered through the housing meltdown, a vital issue in Florida.
“Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1.6 million at the same time Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars,” Romney said.
Gingrich’s firm’s $1.6 million contract with Freddie Mac, which the former speaker once described as payment for his work as an historian, Romney said, had been signed with a lobbyist for the mortgage company.
He ridiculed Gingrich’s claim in an earlier debate that he’d been paid by Freddie Mac as a historian. A copy of the consulting contract for 2006 was released shortly before the debate by Gingrich’s former company.
“They don’t pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians,” Romney said. “They weren’t hiring you as an historian, and this contract proves that you were not an historian. You were a consultant.”
Gingrich denied that he had worked as a lobbyist or lobbied his former colleagues. His work for the mortgage giant, he said, was “largely based on my knowledge of history, including the history of Washington.”
A copy of the contract for 2006 was released shortly before the debate by Gingrich’s former company.
And in a shot at Romney’s honesty, Gingrich, In response, Gingrich and said his campaign would be airing an ad “in which both John McCain and Mike Huckabee, in 2007-2008, explained how much they think Gov. Romney can’t tell the truth.
Countering what he called Romney’s “misinformation,” Gingrich said he had resigned as speaker “because I took responsibility” for GOP losses in the 1998 election. “I think that’s what a leader should do, “ he added.
But Rep. Ron Paulof Texas, who was in the House at the time, sharply disputed Gingrich’s version of events. He said the reason Gingrich left was because he “didn’t have the votes” from his House Republican colleagues to keep his leadership job.
“This idea that he voluntarily reneged and he was going to punish himself because we didn’t do well in the election, that’s just not the way it was,” said Paul, who is largely skipping the Florida campaign.
At one point, after visibly trying to keep his emotions in check, Gingrich boiled over. He said the debate had become “unnecessarily personal and nasty” and called Romney’s claim that he had lobbied after leaving office “defamatory and factually false.”
The two leading candidates are also fighting for the votes of conservatives, who strongly favored Gingrich in South Carolina.
From the debate stage at the University of South Florida, Romney argued that Gingrich wasn’t the strong conservative he claims to be.
“When I was fighting against cap and trade, the speaker was sitting down with Nancy Pelosi on a sofa encouraging it. When I was fighting to say that the Paul Ryan plan to save Medicare was bold and right, he was saying that it was right-wing social engineering. So we have very different perspectives on leadership and the kind of leadership that our conservative movement needs, not just to get elected but to get the country right,” Romney said.
Gingrich, comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, argued that Republicans should vote for “a solid conservative who believes in economic growth through lower taxes and less regulation, who believes in an American energy program, who believes in a strong national defense, and who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment. … They’re not sending somebody to Washington to manage the decay. They’re sending somebody to Washington to change it, and that requires somebody who’s prepared to be controversial when necessary.”
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, now struggling to avoid being marginalized, largely stayed positive, while his rivals attacked. But he disputed the notion that the contest was increasingly becoming a Romney-Gingrich fight.
He said that healthcare, government bailouts and climate change — issues key to the party’s conservative base — both Romney and Gingrich were too similar to the president.
“The idea that this was a two-person race has been an idea that has been in fashion now for eight months and it’s been wrong about eight times,” he said.
Romney, who will release his 2010 tax return on Tuesday, said the document would contain “no surprises,” while disclosing that the only income he reported over the last two years was capital gains, which are taxed at a low 15% rate.
Issues dear to Floridians were sprinkled throughout the debate, notably the space program, the controversy over the fate of Terry Schiavo, the sugar trade, immigration offshore drilling and Cuba. However, the candidates broke no new ground on those topics.
Reviving a motif from the 2008 campaign, moderator Brian Williams asked the candidates what they would do if they got a call in the middle of the night that Fidel Castro were dead.
“First of all, thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker,” Romney said, before saying that he would work aggressively with the new leadership and that President Obama has taken a dangerous tack by trying to relax relations with the island nation 90 miles off Florida.
Gingrich responded, “I don’t think Fidel Castro is going to meet his maker. He’s going to go to another place.” He said he would reach out to Cubans who sought democracy, notably young people, and would allow appropriate covert military operations there.
Paul, ever the libertarian, did what he has done in nearly every prior debate, swinging to the diametric opposite of his GOP rivals.
“I would do pretty much the opposite,” he said. “I don’t like the isolationism of not talking to people.”