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Romney attacks Gingrich sharply on several fronts in Florida debate

By David Lightman and Lesley Clark, McClatchy Newspapers –

TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney, struggling to gain momentum in this state’s pivotal Republican primary, unleashed a blistering attack Monday on chief rival Newt Gingrich over his ethics, his leadership and his ties to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

The former Massachusetts governor charged Gingrich was an “influence peddler” in Washington who had resigned “in disgrace” as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1998, called Romney’s charges “the worst kind of trivial politics.”

Monday’s nearly two-hour debate at the University of South Florida was the first since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary Saturday in a landslide over Romney.

Since then Romney has attacked, and he turned up the heat Monday.

“The Speaker was given an opportunity to lead our party in 1994 and at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace,” Romney charged. Gingrich stepped down in November 1998 after Republicans failed to gain as many seats as hoped, and left Congress in January 1999.

Romney blasted Gingrich for making an ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging more dialogue on climate change, and for criticizing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s 2011 budget plan as “right-wing social engineering.”

Gingrich began fighting back gently.

“I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Mr. Romney’s misinformation,” he said. “I don’t want to waste the time on them. I think the American public deserves a discussion about how we will beat Barack Obama.”

Romney turned to the Gingrich consulting firm’s dealings with the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., the mortgage giant known as Freddie Mac.

“We just learned today his contract with Freddie Mac was provided by the lobbyist at Freddie Mac,” Romney charged, not its CEO.

Gingrich Monday released a contract with Freddie Mac showing his firm was paid $25,000 a month as a retainer in 2006, for a total of $300,000. Other contracts were not released; estimates are that Gingrich firms earned an estimated $1.6 million over several years. The firm’s director of public policy, which includes lobbying, hired Gingrich.

The Gingrich Group was to provide “consulting and related services as requested by Freddie Mac’s director, public policy.” No lobbying is mentioned.

“You know there’s a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty and that’s sad,” Gingrich said, adding, “I think it’s pretty clear to say that I have never ever done any lobbying.”

Romney persisted, recalling that Gingrich has said he was retained as “a historian” for Freddie Mac. “They don’t pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians. … This contract proves you were not a historian. You were a consultant,” Romney said.

“The fact is I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history,” Gingrich replied, including Washington’s history.

Gingrich asked whether Bain Capital, the private equity investment firm Romney founded, did government work. Romney noted it did not, and pointed out that Gingrich’s firm had advocated the Medicare prescription drug program enacted in 2003.

“You’ve been walking around this state saying things that are untrue,” Gingrich said. “What I did on behalf of Medicare I did openly.”

Romney struck back: “If you’re getting paid by health companies that can benefit from health legislation being drafted, and you meet with GOP congressmen and seek their support …,” he said. “I call it influence peddling. It is not right.”

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