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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.' 

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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.

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“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. 

RECOMMENDED: 'The Real Romney': 10 facts about the presidential hopeful 

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