Suffering in the polls, Romney calls Gingrich an ‘influence peddler’ in Florida debate

Chris Moody

Through most of the debates this Republican presidential campaign, Mitt Romney has sat back and watched the barrage of attacks among his competitors, who rarely managed to land a direct hit. Not Monday night. At the NBC News debate in Tampa, Fla., Romney was the man on the offensive, and all of his energy was focused on Newt Gingrich.

Having lost in Iowa and South Carolina, Romney is trying to reverse his momentum in Florida, which holds the next Republican primary next Tuesday, Jan. 31.

In the first few minutes of the debate, Romney went after Gingrich on every issue he could. He knocked Gingrich for stepping down as Speaker of the House in the 1990s; for consulting with Freddie Mac in the 2000s; for initially opposing House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan; and for teaming with Nancy Pelosi to combat global warming. He also criticized Gingrich's tax plan for being too soft on people like, well, Mitt Romney, who make most of their money from investments--capital gains, dividends and interest.

"The Speaker was given the 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. "In the 15 years after he left the Speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington."

Some call that "lobbying," he said. Gingrich calls it "consulting."

"I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney's misinformation," Gingrich said, referring viewers to his website, newt.org, which he promised will rebut each attack Tuesday morning. "He just said at least four things that are false. I don't want to waste the time on it. ...This is the worst kind of trivial politics."

Romney's most intense attack of the night, however, concerned Gingrich's work with Freddie Mac before the financial crisis.

"I don't think we can possibly retake the White House if the person leading the party is the person working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac," Romney said.

"He may have been a good financier," Gingrich shot back. "He's a terrible historian."

Later in the debate, the issue of Gingrich's work with Freddie Mac came up again. Romney has pressured Gingrich to release documents relating to his work with the Government Sponsored Enterprise, which he did shortly before the debate.

"There's no place in the contract that provides for lobbying," Gingrich said. "I've never done any lobbying."

Romney scoffed at that argument. "On this stage in a prior debate you said you were paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac for a historian--as a historian. They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians," Romney said. "This contract proves you were not a historian, you were a consultant. ...And you were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac."

The debate delved into several local issues, including subsidies for sugar cane, the decision to involve the federal government in removing Terri Schiavo's feeding tube in 2005, increasing funding for NASA, and whether to depose Cuba's leader Fidel Castro.

Romney, Gingrich and Rick Santorum each argued for keeping the restrictive Cold War-era trade relations with Cuba. Only Ron Paul disagreed.

"I don't like the isolation of not talking to people," Paul said. "The Cold War is over. … I think we're living in the dark ages. We can't even talk to the Cuban people. I think it's not 1962 anymore, and we don't have to use force and intimidation and overthrow of governments. I don't think that's going to work."

Near the end, moderator Brian Williams asked the candidates to make their case for what they have done to further the cause of conservatism. After listing his long tenure in the Republican party, Gingrich used the last of his time to make one final, subtle knock against Romney.

"I think only a genuine conservative is in a position to debate Obama and to show how wide the gap is between Obama's policies and conservatism," he said. "He's going to spend a billion dollars to try and smear whoever the nominee is. They'd better be prepared to beat him in the debate and prove how wrong his values are and how wrong his practices are."

These exchanges at the debate were the beginning of what you will hear the Florida primary approaches. Romney outlined his case in Tampa. Now he's going to color it in.

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