Romney, Gingrich tussle in GOP debate

Mitt Romney unleashed his harshest attacks to date on Newt Gingrich Monday in an antagonistic debate in Florida.

He chipped away at the former House Speaker’s record from every direction as he worked to fend off the rival who has unexpectedly put Romney’s hold on the Republican presidential nomination in jeopardy.

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The former Massachusetts governor accused Gingrich of “resigning in disgrace” as speaker of the House, peddling influence and harming American homeowners, ticking off items in a deliberate and clearly prepared routine.

Gingrich, maintaining an uncharacteristic coolness in the heat of a barrage of attacks, accused Romney of lying about history and his record, while Rick Santorum and Ron Paul sat largely on the sidelines, unable to inject themselves meaningfully into a contest that has largely left them behind.

The 18th debate of the presidential contest offered voters a look at Romney in his most aggressive form yet, accentuating the realities of a race that for months had been seen as Romney’s to lose. But Saturday loss to Gingrich by 14 points in South Carolina discharged any prevailing assumptions about a contest already won.

“He had to resign in disgrace,” Romney said of Gingrich in his first opportunity to speak. “The speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington. The speaker, when I was fighting against cap and trade, was sitting down on a sofa with Nancy Pelosi encouraging it."

Later jabs accused Gingrich of lobbying for Freddie Mac and of misleading voters about government-backed mortgage lender by pretending his role had been as a historian, a role that a newly released contract shows earned about $1.6 million for Gingrich after his departure from the House.

“They don’t pay people $25,000 for six years as historians,” Romney said. “You were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac. Not the CEO, not the head of public affairs. The chief lobbyist.”

Gingrich seemed reluctant to individually rebut Romney’s attacks, saying he didn’t want to waste his time. But later, he charged Romney with marketing untruths about him across Florida, which will hold its critical primary on Jan. 31, and said that while Romney had “been a good financier, he’s a terrible historian.”

“I understand your technique, which you used on [John] McCain, you used on [Mike] Huckabee,” Gingrich said after an uncomfortably long pause. “It’s unfortunate, and it’s not going to work very well, and the American people see through it.”

But when Gingrich tried to paint his resignation from the House in 1998 as a patriotic move to step aside after Republicans fared poorly in congressional elections and two years after he had been dogged by ethics charges, Paul intervened in his most critical moment of the debate to call Gingrich’s bluff.

“He didn’t have the votes, that’s what the problem was,” said Paul, who had rejoined the House the year before Gingrich’s resignation. “So this idea he voluntarily resigned and was going to punish himself because we didn’t win the election – that’s just not the way it was.”

Much of the debate centered on recitations of history by the presidential hopefuls, recounting political squabbles from almost every decade starting with U.S. intervention in World War II in the 1940s. Unlike previous debates that focused squarely on solutions to unemployment and pressing national issues, Monday’s NBC News/National Journal/St. Petersburg Times debate touched on more passing topics, such as debate early in the millennium over life-sustaining measures for Terry Schiavo.

Paul spoke only once in the first 40 minutes and Santorum only twice. The instances when the conversation returned momentarily to them seemed a compulsory respite until the moderators could return to the real fight between Gingrich and Romney. Although Santorum won the Iowa caucuses and Paul has placed second or third in all of the first three contests, both have slipped from the forefront of the race after a late surge by Gingrich restored him into the front tier.

Romney, who had been unable in previous debates to muster a persuasive response to attacks on his private-sector career at Bain Capital, finally delivered a compelling and decisive rebuttal, claiming he never anticipated his Republican rivals would pick up the torch of characteristically Democratic attacks on the free market.

“I will not apologize for having been successful. I did not inherit what my wife and I have – nor did she. I built the old fashioned way, by earning it,” Romney said, noting that he had created entry-level jobs and offered middle-class careers to thousands of Americans. “I’m proud of the fact we helped people around the country.”

It was the first debate since immediately after the Iowa caucuses where Romney wasn’t the prime recipient of the ire of all the rest of his opponents and emerged essentially unscathed.

Immigration was an undercurrent of much of the debate in Florida, a state with a growing Hispanic population that is more conservative and reliably Republican than in other parts of the country, such as the Southwest. Candidates took turns one-upping each other on who could take the harshest stance against Cuba, where vast numbers of political exiles have fled Communism in favor of life in Florida.

“You thank heaven that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land,” Romney said when asked how he would respond as president to a phone call informing him that the Cuban dictator was dead.

Meanwhile, Gingrich called for covert operations to overthrow the Cuban government, taking Romney’s reference to Casto in the afterlife a bleak step further.

“I don't think Fidel's going to meet his maker. I think he's going to a different place,” Gingrich said.

And asked what to reconcile his objection to mass deportations with his refusal to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants, Romney said that by denying jobs to those without permission to enter the country, the nation could solve the problem through “self-deportation,” a comment that struck many as tone deaf and unrealistic.

Santorum, meanwhile, called it part of the U.S. doctrine to secure the hemisphere, later taking an even more hawkish stance on foreign policy when asked about the threat from Iran.

“The theocracy that runs Iran is the equivalent of having Al Qaida,” the former senator said.

Monday’s gathering in Tampa, Fla. offered two other departures from the prototype the candidates have established in debates past. The media – long the preferred adversary of Gingrich and sometimes his rivals – escaped any haranguing. And a controlled audience of just a few hundred people precluded the booing, standing ovations and loud audience interjections that offered the candidates real-time response to their performance in earlier debates.

The presidential contenders have just three days before they will square off again in a CNN debate in Jacksonville, Fla. co-hosted by the Hispanic Leadership Network and the state Republican Party.

-- Alicia M. Cohn and Cameron Joseph contributed.

--This story was originally posted at 9:21 p.m. and last updated at 11:52 p.m.