TAMPA - Mitt Romney repeatedly attacked Newt Gingrich last night, saying he was disgraced in an ethics scandal and peddled influence in Washington, charges that Gingrich testily dismissed as the two rivals met for their first debate since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary.
Taking a more aggressive stance than in past debates, Romney sought to stem Gingrich’s resurgence by putting him on the defensive. Gingrich tried to avoid responding directly to the attacks, calling them “the worst kind of trivial politics.’’
But Romney succeed in drawing Gingrich into the fray, forcing him, for example, to explain the vote that Gingrich’s House colleagues took to reprimand him for an ethics violation and his postcongressional work as a consultant for Freddie Mac.
“You can call it whatever you’d like. I call it influence peddling. It is not right. It is not right,’’ Romney said. “You’ve spent now 15 years in Washington, on K Street. 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 has worked for 15 years lobbying’’ in Washington.
Gingrich called the charges “defamatory and false,’’ and declared, “I’m not going to spend the night chasing Governor Romney’s misinformation.’’ He sought to turn Romney’s attacks into an indictment of the former Massachusetts governor’s character, accusing him of attacking his rivals in similar fashion in the 2008 race.
“Let me be very clear,’’ Gingrich told Romney. “Because I understand your technique, which you used on [John] McCain, you used on [Mike] Huckabee - you’ve used consistently. OK? It’s unfortunate. It’s not going to work very well because the American people see through it.’’
But Romney’s attacks showed how Gingrich has become the main target since his upset victory in South Carolina gave him a jolt of momentum heading into the Florida primary on Jan. 31.
Ron Paul and Rick Santorum were largely sidelined in the debate, and did not even speak for the first 10 minutes.
Both of them insisted, however, that they remain viable challengers for the nomination. Santorum pointed out that the race has been highly volatile, with front-runners soaring and crashing for months.
“If you’ve learned anything about this election, it’s that any type of prediction is going to be wrong,’’ Santorum said.
Paul, as he has in the past, said he had no intention of launching an independent bid for the presidency, but would not rule it out.
Just hours before the debate began, Gingrich got some good news: Miriam Adelson, the wife of the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, is giving Gingrich’s allies $5 million, extending the former speaker a crucial lifeline as he comes under a negative ad barrage from the Romney campaign.
The donation to Winning Our Future, an independent group that is supporting Gingrich’s campaign, comes several weeks after Sheldon Adelson himself gave the group $5 million to spend in the South Carolina primary.
The group used the money to air a controversial documentary that skewered Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital. The ad was deemed inaccurate and Gingrich called for it to be changed or taken down, but only after its devastating portrait of Romney as a corporate raider had entered the political mainstream.
In Florida, the $5 million will help Gingrich compete with Romney in the state’s expensive and varied media markets. The Associated Press reported that Miriam Adelson had asked for her money to be used only on ads that support Gingrich and do not tear down other candidates.
The fight between Romney and Gingrich has become increasingly vitriolic since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, unexpectedly roaring back to life after his campaign had been declared all but dead.
Even before the debate, Romney was in attack mode, calling Gingrich an unstable leader and suggesting that the former House speaker could have engaged in “potentially wrongful activity’’ by not registering as a federal lobbyist.
In the past, Romney has relied on his supporters to make those arguments. Yesterday, he was doing it himself, in an attempt to confront Gingrich more directly and stop his momentum from South Carolina.
“He’s gone from pillar to post almost like a pinball machine - from item to item in a way which is highly erratic,’’ Romney said at a press conference in Tampa. “It does not suggest a stable, thoughtful course which is normally associated with leadership.’’
Romney also renewed calls for Gingrich to return the $1.6 million he received from Freddie Mac, and called on him to release records of any advice he provided to the mortgage giant.
“We could see an October surprise a day from Newt Gingrich,’’ Romney said. “So let’s see the records.’’
“Let’s see who his clients were,’’ he added. “At the time he was lobbying Republican congressmen for Medicare Part D, was he working, or were his entities working, with any health care companies that could have benefited from that? That could represent not just evidence of lobbying but potentially wrongful activity of some kind.’’
Romney’s campaign is trying to cast the former speaker as a Washington influence-peddler. Yesterday, it launched its first negative ad, featuring a deep-voiced narrator saying, “While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in.’’
Gingrich has insisted that he was not lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac, and was instead doing consulting work.
“I did no lobbying, period,’’ Gingrich said yesterday on ABC. “It’s not true. He knows it’s not true. He is deliberately saying things he knows are false. I just think that’s what the next week will be like.’’
Gingrich also said his attorneys were in talks with the Center for Health Transformation - the consulting firm that he used to run - about releasing records related to his consulting contracts.
Appearing at his first event in Florida yesterday, Gingrich described Romney’s onslaught as the work of a desperate candidate.
“It’s such baloney,’’ Gingrich told several hundred voters outside a Tampa church. “It used to be pious baloney. But now it’s just desperate baloney. . . . Pretty soon, he’ll be able to work in a delicatessen.’’
“Pious baloney’’ was the phrase Gingrich used several weeks ago during a debate in New Hampshire to mock Romney’s claim that he wasn’t a career politician.
“If you’ve been campaigning for six years, and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate, and when you get desperate, you say almost anything,’’ Gingrich said of Romney.Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.