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Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney attacked Newt Gingrich as an “influence peddler in Washington” and a failed leader whose party ousted him as U.S. House speaker, as he sought in a debate last night to slow his challenger’s momentum in the Republican presidential race.
Gingrich dismissed Romney’s charges as the “worst kind of trivial politics” and challenged his leadership skills, saying Romney presided over losses of Republican seats in Massachusetts and statehouses elsewhere as head of the party’s governors’ association.
With polls showing the Republican contest increasingly a two-man battle between the ex-speaker and the former Massachusetts governor, Romney struck a more combative stance toward Gingrich than he has previously.
“It’s about leadership, and the speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994 and at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace,” Romney said during the debate at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
He also pressed his case that, despite Gingrich’s denials, he became a lobbyist after leaving office, focusing on the consulting work he did for the government-backed home mortgage company Freddie Mac.
“We’ve just learned today that his contract with Freddie Mac was provided by the lobbyist at Freddie Mac,” Romney said. “I don’t think we could possibly retake the White House if the person who’s leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac.”
Gingrich’s consulting firm shortly before the debate released a copy of its 2006 contract with Freddie Mac, which covers just one year of his multiple years of service. It outlines $300,000 of the $1.6 million he received from the mortgage company. A contract covering a longer period is missing, a Gingrich aide said.
Gingrich responded to Romney’s charges by accusing his rival of “saying things that are untrue” about him throughout Florida, the site of the next primary on Jan. 31.
He defended his tenure as speaker, saying he had helped balance federal budgets, overhaul welfare and bring down unemployment.
Though Gingrich generally tried to stay above the fray, he sought to undercut Romney’s leadership criticism.
“In 2006, when you chaired the Governors Association, we lost governorships,” Gingrich said. “And in the four years that you were governor, we lost seats in the Massachusetts legislature. So I think as a party builder, the 20 years I spent building the House Republican Party stands pretty good as an example of leadership.”
Gingrich announced his decision to resign from Congress in November 1998, just after his party lost seats in mid-term congressional elections. The previous year, the House had reprimanded him for violating the chamber’s rules and required Gingrich to pay $300,000 to reimburse the cost of its investigation. The probe found he had used foundations financed with tax-deductible contributions for political purposes.
In last night’s debate, Gingrich said he decided to resign his seat because he was taking responsibility for his party’s election losses.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas disputed Gingrich’s contention.
“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, another of the Republican presidential contenders whose current House stint began in 1997.
Lacking the Votes
Gingrich didn’t run again for speaker because he didn’t have the votes, Paul said. “It was a mess,” he said of the situation within the Republican caucus at the time.
As part of labeling Gingrich a lobbyist, Romney criticized him for meeting with Republican lawmakers in 2003 to encourage them to vote for a Medicare prescription drug benefit, even as he had health-care companies as clients.
“I have always publicly favored a stronger Medicare program,” Gingrich said in response.
“You can call it whatever you’d like; I call it influence peddling,” Romney said. “It is not right. You have a conflict. You are being paid by companies at the same time you’re encouraging people to pass legislation which is in their favor.”
Romney added: “This is a real problem if we’re going to nominate someone who not only had a record of great distress as the speaker but then has worked for 15 years lobbying.”
Romney had said in a Jan. 19 debate that, if he could do one thing differently in his campaign, he would spend less time attacking his opponents and more time talking about President Barack Obama. Asked about his reversal on that front, Romney said he had no choice.
“I learned something from the last contest in South Carolina,” Romney said. “I’m not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire.”
The two leading Republican presidential contenders are fighting to win Florida’s primary after Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 contest shook up the race, depriving Romney of his front-runner status.
The sparring between Romney and Gingrich dominated the debate. Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania disputed the notion that the nomination will fall to one of them.
“Any type of prediction is going to be wrong,” said Santorum. “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.”
Romney said there would be “no surprises” in personal tax documents his campaign released today.
“The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people,” he said.
The documents showed Romney earned $21.6 million in 2010 and paid 13.9 percent of that amount in income taxes, using the preferential rate on investment income and charitable deductions to pay a smaller share of earnings than top wage earners typically do.
Romney had been criticized by Gingrich during the South Carolina campaign for wanting to delay until April any release of tax information. Returns Gingrich released Jan. 19 showed he and his wife had a gross income of $3.1 million in 2010 and paid a tax rate of 31.6 percent.
Romney said last night he isn’t concerned that his wealth would be a liability in a general election.
“I was surprised to see people in the Republican Party pick up the weapons of the left and start using them to attack free enterprise,” he said. “What I was able to build, I built the old-fashioned way, by earning it, by working hard.”
On an issue of special concern in Florida, Romney and Gingrich both criticized Obama for not encouraging Cubans who want to overthrow Fidel Castro.
“This president has taken a very dangerous course with regards to Cuba, saying we’re going to relax relations,” Romney said. “This is the wrong time for that.”
The U.S. policy should be “aggressively to overthrow the regime,” Gingrich said.
Romney said if he heard of Castro’s death, his first step would be to “thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker.” Gingrich said Castro wouldn’t be meeting his maker and instead would be going to “the other place.”
Paul took the chance to emphasize his non-interventionist foreign policy, saying he would choose an opposite course and open up the lines of communication with Cuba.
“I think we’re living in the dark ages when we can’t even talk to the Cuban people,” Paul said.
The debate was sponsored by NBC News, the National Journal, the Tampa Bay Times and the nonprofit business organization, the Florida Council of 100. The 18th debate in the Republican contest was moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams.
--With assistance from Clea Benson and Julie Bykowicz in Washington and Jonathan Salant and Lisa Lerer in Tampa. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: John McCormick in Tampa at email@example.com; Kristin Jensen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com