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Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney urged Newt Gingrich to return more than $1.6 million he made consulting for Freddie Mac, one of the two government- backed mortgage companies caught up in the housing meltdown.
“He was in the business of connecting folks with government,” Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said of Gingrich in a Fox News interview today as both campaigned in New Hampshire. “It’s very different than the private sector.”
Gingrich, a former House speaker, has said he never lobbied for Freddie Mac and described his work there as that of a historian.
“That would make him the highest paid historian in history,” said Romney, in the interview from the Chez Vachon diner from Manchester, New Hampshire.
Gingrich fired back by criticizing Romney’s years at the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC.
“If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be happy to at least listen to him,” Gingrich said in Londonderry. “I would bet you $10, not $10,000, that he won’t take the offer.”
The two sharpened their attacks as new polling shows Gingrich leading Romney in two early primary states. An NBC News/Marist poll released yesterday shows Gingrich leading Romney by 19 percentage points in South Carolina and 15 points in Florida among likely Republican primary voters, including those who are undecided yet leaning toward a candidate.
Even as Gingrich returned Romney’s criticism today, he was billing himself to New Hampshire voters as the candidate taking the higher road. Noting his rise in some early primary states, Gingrich told a town hall at Insight Technology in Londonderry that the campaign had entered a phase showing “the power of positive ideas versus the power of negative advertising.”
“I’m the front-runner, so everybody is going to pile on, and they’re going to try to knock me down,” Gingrich said, adding that he was “somebody who is determined to be positive.”
With less than a month before the first round of voting in Iowa, Romney’s rivals have worked to make his wealth an issue, painting the former private-equity executive as disconnected from the economic anxiety many voters face. Romney, 64, a co- founder of Bain, is worth as much as $250 million, according to a personal financial disclosure he filed in August.
The issue flared during a Dec. 10 Republican presidential debate in Iowa when Romney offered a $10,000 bet after denying rival Rick Perry’s claim that he had supported requiring individuals to have health insurance.
“Rick, I’ll tell you what, 10,000 bucks? $10,000 bet?” Romney said. Perry replied: “I’m not in the betting business.”
Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” the next day, Perry, the governor of Texas, said the wager showed Romney was “a little out of touch with the normal Iowa citizen.”
The Democratic National Committee jumped on Romney’s offer, saying in an e-mail that $10,000 is more than four months’ pay for many people and could be more than a year’s worth of mortgage payments.
Romney today dismissed the wager as “an outrageous number to answer an outrageous charge.”
“It’s like saying, ‘hey, I’ll bet you a million bucks, x, y or z,” he said in the interview on Fox News.
A Romney adviser used Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac, which was taken into government conservatorship in 2008 after its stake in subprime loans pushed it to the brink of collapse, to question the depth of the former Georgia congressman’s economic experience.
“Newt Gingrich comes from the world where politicians are paid millions after they retire to influence their friends in Washington,” said Tom Stemberg, a founder of office supply company Staples Inc. who once convinced Romney to help finance the expansion of the stores. “After 30 years as a Washington insider, Newt Gingrich has no clue how the real world economy works.”
Addressing voters yesterday, Romney portrayed himself as having experienced frugal living. He described his time living cheaply as a missionary in France after graduating high school.
Romney, the son of a former Michigan governor and auto company chief executive officer, recounted how he went from an affluent home to getting by on $110 per month.
“You’re not living high on the hog,” he said. He recalled renting apartments without showers, refrigerators or toilets --a “bucket affair” -- he said.
“I lived in the way that people of lower middle income in France lived,” he said. “It was a wake-up experience for me.”
Romney described the race as “fluid,” saying, “these polls have bounced all over the place in the past year.”
Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who isn’t actively campaigning in Iowa and didn’t qualify for the Dec. 10 debate at Drake University in Des Moines because his poll numbers were too low, said Republican voters haven’t made up their minds yet.
“There have been so many ups and downs in this race, I’m getting whiplashed,” Huntsman said in an appearance on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The marketplace is still open. People are shopping.”
Huntsman released a video replaying Romney’s $10,000 wager offer and started a website attacking Romney’s health-care record. He and Gingrich will meet today for a debate at 4 p.m. at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.
--With assistance from John McCormick in Des Moines, Iowa. Editors: Robin Meszoly, Mark McQuillan.
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