Florida GOP debate: Romney assails Gingrich record at House, Freddie Mac (+video)

Mitt Romney landed plenty of blows to Newt Gingrich's record during Monday's GOP debate in Tampa, Fla. Gingrich has described his role at Freddie Mac as 'strategic adviser;' Romney calls it 'influence-peddling.' 

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, take part in a GOP debate Monday, at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla., as moderator Brian Williams of NBC News listens.
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Mitt Romney came ready to rumble. 

In a bid to retake the lead for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Romney went after Newt Gingrich Monday night for his controversial tenure as speaker of the House, lucrative consulting for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, and other work Romney derided as “influence-peddling.”

Mr. Gingrich fought back, but without the verve that fueled his decisive victory over Romney in last Saturday’s South Carolina primary. The GOP debate in Tampa, the first of two before Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, was generally a subdued affair, without the raucous audience reactions of previous faceoffs. But Romney landed plenty of blows.

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“I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina, and that was I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of the attacks,” said Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts. “And I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire.”

Within hours, though, Romney buried his own debate headlines by putting out his 2010 and 2011 tax returns – a treasure trove of financial data on one of the wealthiest presidential contenders in history. Romney and his wife, Ann, reported income of $21.7 million in 2010 and $20.9 million in 2011, according to a preview provided to the Washington Post late Monday.

Because most of that income came from investments, the Romneys’ effective tax rate was well below that of most Americans, who work for a living. In 2010, the rate was 13.9 percent and in 2011, 15.4 percent.

Romney had come under intense pressure to release his returns for the first time in his political career, and stumbled badly in the debates last week as his halting answers on whether and when he would release his returns made it appear he had something to hide. On Monday night, Romney said he was “proud” that he pays a lot of taxes.

“I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more,” Romney said. “I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”

Earlier, Romney had stated that the two returns out Tuesday will be it – no release of 12 years’ worth of tax returns, as his father, George Romney, did during his presidential campaign in 1967. The Democrats are now pounding on Romney to release more returns.

In Monday’s debate, Romney turned discussion of his own taxes into a call for changes to the American tax code that he said would benefit middle-income Americans. But it was his sustained critique of Gingrich that distinguished his performance. Gingrich said he left the speakership in 1998 because he “took responsibility” for his party’s losses in the midterm elections. Romney was ready with a different narrative.

“The truth is that the members of his own team, his congressional team, after his four years of leadership, they moved to replace him,” said Romney. “They also took a vote, and 88 percent of Republicans voted to reprimand the speaker. And he did resign in disgrace after that.”

Another candidate on stage, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, backed up Romney’s version. Upon his return to Congress in 1997 after a 12-year absence, Congressman Paul said “it was chaotic, let me tell you.” Gingrich didn’t run for reelection as speaker, Paul said, because he didn’t have the votes.

Gingrich also made headlines Monday night by arranging for the release of a 2006 contract detailing his work for Freddie Mac, at a rate of $25,000 a month paid to his consulting firm. Gingrich has described his role as “historian” and “strategic adviser.” Romney has called the work “lobbying” and “influence-peddling.”

"This contract proves you were not a historian. You were a consultant," Romney said in Monday’s debate. "And you were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac."

Gingrich’s rebuttal: "Governor Romney has done consulting work for years. I've never suggested his consulting work was lobbying."

Romney also accused Gingrich of lobbying members of Congress in favor of creating the prescription-drug program for seniors known as Medicare Part D. Instead of denying he had lobbied for the program, which came into being in 2006, he defended it.

“I am proud of the fact – and I'll say this in Florida – I am proud of the fact that I publicly, openly advocated Medicare Part D,” Gingrich said.

Florida has a large senior population, which turns out to vote in high numbers.

Other Florida issues came up in the debate: US policy toward Cuba, sugar subsidies, the the legal battle over comatose patient Terry Schiavo.

The four candidates, including former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, also staged a spirited discussion of other US foreign policy matters, including the possibility of going to war with Iran.   

But given the burst of political events this week, much of Monday night’s debate was likely a tree falling in the forest. Tuesday night, President Obama delivers his third State of the Union address, the unofficial opening of his reelection campaign. In Monday’s GOP debate, with the top two contenders focused on each other and not the president, Mr. Obama almost seemed an afterthought. 

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