“You spent now 15 years in Washington on K Street,” Romney said about the former speaker’s years after he left Congress. “And 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 that has worked for 15 years lobbying.”
Gingrich, whose pugnacious debating style helped propel him to victory in South Carolina, was far more subdued as he parried Romney’s attacks. He accused the former governor of getting his facts wrong and making distorted charges, and he predicted that the voters would reject such politics.
Gingrich protested when Romney said the former speaker had lobbied members of Congress over legislation to add a prescription drug benefit to Medicare. “You just jumped a long way over here, friend,” he said sarcastically. “Let me be very clear, because I understand your technique. . . . It’s not going to work very well, because the American people see through it.”
The debate came at a critical time in the Republican presidential race, with Romney’s candidacy suddenly at risk and with Gingrich unexpectedly in strong contention for the party nomination.
Two other candidates were on the stage — former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.), who won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) — but the focus now is almost entirely on Romney and Gingrich, and the tenor of the debate reflected that political reality. Far more than in some past forums, the two front-runners spent more time challenging each other than trying to make a case against President Obama or describing their plan to turn around the economy.
Although the exchanges between Romney and Gingrich were pointed, the debate, held at the University of South Florida, lacked the carnival atmosphere of those in South Carolina, where audiences cheered loudly and egged on the candidates.
The debate came as Romney, bowing to pressure, released his 2010 tax returns and estimates for 2011. He acknowledged Sunday that his campaign had erred by not taking action when the issue first arose.
Earlier in the day, Romney demanded that Gingrich release his contract with housing giant Freddie Mac, which paid the former speaker’s firm about $1.6 million over a period of years. Shortly before the debate, Gingrich posted one of those contracts on his campaign Web site, showing an annual payment of $300,000.