Mitt Romney went for a face-to-face assault on his surging primary opponent in Monday night’s Florida debate, calling out Newt Gingrich as an “influence peddler” who had to “resign in disgrace” from the House of Representatives.
From the first minutes of the debate, Romney was on the offensive, accusing the man who routed him in last weekend’s South Carolina primary of being unscrupulous, unreliable and simply unelectable.
“I think [the election is] about leadership and the speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And by the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace,” Romney said. “In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington.”
He continued: “In those 15 years, I helped run the Olympics, helped start a… turnaround in Massachusetts.”
Romney kept at it throughout the first half of the debate, criticizing Gingrich for having been rebuked by his GOP colleagues in the House, earning money as an advocate for Freddie Mac and teaming up with Nancy Pelosi to talk about global warming.
It amounted to a kitchen-sink attack on a man who roared back from defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire to become a mortal threat to Romney’s candidacy. And it remains to be seen how Romney’s sudden change of debate demeanor will play with voters who had previously watched him try to maintain an above-the-fray posture that seemed to look forward to the general election.
The sometimes-volatile Gingrich maintained his composure throughout the assault, responding to Romney with a combination of mockery and visible contempt.
“I’m not going to spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney’s misinformation,” Gingrich said at the outset of the debate. “This is the worst kind of trivial politics.”
But faced with Romney’s continued jabs, Gingrich began to strike back, complaining that Romney was practicing dirty politics and going after the Bay Stater’s record as a party leader.
“I understand your technique, which you used on McCain, you used on Huckabee,” Gingrich said, referring to Romney’s bruising 2008 presidential campaign. “It’s unfortunate and it’s not going to work very well, because the American people see through it.”
Pushing against on the charge that he put Republicans at risk with his behavior as speaker, Gingrich pointed out that when Romney was head of the Republican Governors Association, “We lost governorships and in the four years you were governor, we lost seats in the Massachusetts legislature.”
Romney and Gingrich are locked in a potential death match in next week’s Florida primary, as each man recognizes the expensive mega-state contest could give the other a decisive advantage.
But they weren’t the only two candidates on the debate stage: Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, too, debated, though they were relegated to a supporting role as the front-runners kept at each other’s throats.
Santorum, who has consistently handed in strong debate performances, stuck to the message that he’s the consistent conservative in the race, who can run the kind of safe campaign required to defeat President Barack Obama.
He took a passing shot at his opponents for supporting the 2008 bank bailouts, which Santorum opposed. The other candidates didn’t return fire.
Paul, who has essentially opted to skip the Florida primary due to its high cost, had his most notable moment of the night when he again declined to rule out a possible third-party campaign in definitive terms.
Asked by NBC moderator Brian Williams if he might “go [his] own way,” Paul answered: “I’ve done a lot of that in my lifetime.”
“I have no plans to do that, no intention,” he said of an independent run, adding: “I haven’t been an absolutist. When I left Congress, I didn’t have any plans of going back. But I did, after 12 years.”