By Maeve Reston
CHARLESTON, S.C. — With dueling appearances on Sunday news shows, Republican rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sought to rebut attacks on their private sector experience but refrained from criticizing each other, instead focusing on their plans to unravel President Barack Obama’s policies if they were elected to the White House.
Though Gingrich still leads Romney in many national polls, the former Massachusetts governor has gained significant new support in two early-voting states — one reason, perhaps, why he dealt gently with his Republican rivals. He landed the endorsement of the influential Des Moines Register on Saturday, a day after winning the backing of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, and former Republican nominee Bob Dole endorsed him Sunday in an open letter to Iowans.
In his first Sunday show appearance in nearly two years, taped here Saturday, Romney avoided the attacks on Gingrich that he unleashed last week, instead skewering Obama’s leadership style.
“His great failing is that he does not understand how this economy works,” Romney said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I do know how this economy works and my policies are designed to get people what they desperately want.”
Repeatedly stating that he was in the race to help middle-class Americans, Romney said he was prepared for Obama to use his work at Bain Capital to paint him as a “fat cat” and a greedy creature of Wall Street.
“Of course he will, in part because he’s been the great divider,” he told host Chris Wallace. “This is a president who goes after anybody who is successful, and by the way, he’s pretty successful too.”
Romney has come under fire from both Gingrich and Democrats for his work at Bain, a private equity firm that acquired more than 100 companies during his 15 years at the helm, sometimes slashing thousands of jobs and driving companies deep into debt as it sought to make profits for investors.
Romney asserted that Bain’s intent in every case was “to either help people realize their dreams by starting a business or taking a business that was failing or underperforming and make it more successful. … Not always was I able to succeed, but in each case we tried to grow an enterprise.”
But Wallace pointed out — as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month — that four of the 10 biggest investments by Bain under Romney’s leadership were made in companies that went bankrupt. “It’s the downside, it’s the reality of what life is like in the private sector,” Romney responded.
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gingrich expressed some regret for his campaign’s handling of his own private-sector controversy — the disclosure that his firm was paid $1.6 million for advising Freddie Mac, the quasi-governmental mortgage giant many Republicans blame for triggering the housing collapse.
Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page chided the former House speaker for his “lack of candor” about his work for Freddie Mac. When the issue was initially raised during a November debate, for example, Gingrich said Freddie Mac had hired him because he is a historian.
The Journal pointed out that Gingrich had defended Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae as recently as 2007, when he said he would be “very cautious about fundamentally changing their role or the model itself.”
Gingrich told host Bob Schieffer “that we earned that editorial” by failing to give a full accounting of his work for Freddie Mac “from day one.”
“The facts are, I didn’t personally get that kind of money; it went to a consulting firm which had offices in three cities and the share I got was relatively small,” he said.
Gingrich said the firm offered “consulting advice” and that the only public document he wrote for Freddie Mac “basically said as part of it, they need more regulations.” He added that when he spoke to congressional Republicans in July 2008, shortly before the federal government prevented the collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, he urged them to reject a bailout.
“I do in fact favor breaking them both up; each of them should probably devolve into probably four or five companies,” Gingrich said, “and they should be weaned off the government endorsements.”
Late last week, federal officials accused six former Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac executives of misleading investors. Gingrich told Schieffer he was not aware of wrongdoing while his firm advised the company.
In Fort Dodge, Iowa, rival candidate Michele Bachmann slashed at Gingrich, calling on him to return the $1.6 million from Freddie Mac, and castigated him for his past positions on immigration and his willingness to support GOP candidates who did not oppose partial-birth abortion.
“He’s trying to sound like a conservative, but actually he sounds more like the 30-year establishment Washington insider that he is,” she told reporters.
With the final U.S. troops to leave Iraq due to return home over the next two weeks, Romney and Gingrich briefly addressed the nation’s handling of that conflict. Romney criticized the president’s decision to withdraw troops by the end of this year.
“We’re going to find that this president, by not putting in place a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi leadership, has pulled our troops out in a precipitous way, and we should have left 10, 20, 30,000 personnel there to help transition to the Iraqi’s own military capabilities,” he said.
Romney would not say whether, in hindsight, he would have made the same decision as President George W. Bush to invade Iraq. Gingrich, by contrast, noted that he had said as early as 2003 that the U.S. “had gone off a cliff” by engaging in Iraq.
“I think we are going to find to our great sadness that we’ve lost several thousand young Americans and had many thousand more wounded undertaking a project that we couldn’t do,” Gingrich said Sunday.
“People do not understand how much the Iranians have penetrated Iraq and that the vacuum we’ve created will lead to, I think, a very, very unstable and very unpleasant environment in Iraq.”
(Times staff writer Seema Mehta in Fort Dodge, Iowa, contributed to this report.)