Romney criticized Gingrich for his work for troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, his ethics troubles in Congress and for lobbying Republican lawmakers on health issues while getting paid by healthcare companies.
“Much of Newt’s momentum has been fueled by his debate performances,” Republican strategist Todd Harris said. “When Romney even debates him to a draw, it’s got to be viewed as a good night for Romney.”
The assault, by far the most aggressive launched by Romney during the Republican presidential campaign, was designed to halt growing momentum for Gingrich, who moved into the lead in two Florida polls released on Monday.
“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, according to Reuters.
The two men faced each other in a forum at the University of South Florida, eight days before the state’s crucial primary. At stake is not only Florida’s 50 convention delegates — the biggest prize to date — but also a sense of momentum and command in the most tumultuous Republican nomination battle of modern times.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum also participated in the debate, hosted by NBC News, National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times.
Romney, the former front-runner who was stung by Gingrich’s 12-point victory in the South Carolina primary last week, bowed to political pressure and released records that showed he will pay $6.2 million in taxes on a total of $42.5 million in income for 2010 and 2011.
At the same time, hours before the debate Gingrich, under pressure from Romney, released his contract with Freddie Mac that showed he was hired by the office in charge of lobbying.
The contract, for one year of the six he worked for Freddie Mac, showed the Gingrich Group was paid $300,000 for 2006.
At one point, Gingrich, who has been the master of the season’s 18 debates, briefly fell in a frustrated silence as he responded to Romney’s rapid-fire attacks for saying he was hired by mortgage giant Freddie Mac as “a historian” and for advocating health care policies while being paid by health care companies, USA Today reports.
“You’ve been walking around this state saying things that are untrue,” an irate Gingrich replied, saying he had advocated policy positions as a concerned citizen, not because of consulting contracts. That isn’t lobbying, he said.
“He may have made a good financier. He’s a terrible historian,” he said of Romney.
Gingrich compared himself to Reagan, calling himself “exactly the kind of bold, tough leader” that Americans want, “someone who is prepared to be controversial when necessary.” Romney cited his record in running the Salt Lake City Olympics and said Gingrich “had to resign in disgrace” as House speaker after an ethics controversy, a characterization Gingrich disputed.
The debate audience obeyed moderator Brian Williams’ admonition not to cheer or boo the candidates’ comments, making the forum less chaotic and less energetic than some previous ones.
Near the end, Santorum made an impassioned plea for his credentials as a consistent conservative. On issues such as health care, he said of Romney and Gingrich, “When push came to shove, they got pushed.”
During the debate, the candidates blasted President Obama and largely concurred on several issues with special resonance in Florida, from sugar subsidies to NASA to the case of Terri Schiavo. Romney and Gingrich agreed the demise of Fidel Castro should be cause for celebration — a safe position in a state where Cuban exiles and their descendants are a potent political force.