GREENVILLE, S.C. — Attacked by Republican rival Mitt Romney as a “lifetime politician,” Newt Gingrich on Wednesday proclaimed himself to be a “lifetime citizen,” and tried to downplay his more than 30-year career in Washington.
The former House speaker emphasized his roles since 1958 as a college professor and as a “small-business owner,” which is how Gingrich now describes his role as the head of a network of organizations he created that advised big companies about dealing with the government over the past several years. The New York Times reported on Wednesday that Gingrich made millions of dollars since leaving office in 1999, helping companies promote their services and gain access to state and federal officials. The candidate has claimed he did no lobbying, but watchdog groups have said he in effect was lobbied.
“I’m happy to say that as a lifetime citizen I’m very proud that I’ve actually tried to understand what it takes to make America successful,” Gingrich told reporters in Tommy’s Country Ham House where he held a town hall meeting.
But when asked at the meeting if he could keep the government running, Gingrich was forced to recall the two government shutdowns that occurred while he and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives were locked in a who-blinks-first budget battle with President Clinton.
“We stopped it twice when we were fighting with Clinton but we did it very carefully,” Gingrich told the crowd. “We paid Social Security, we paid the military, we paid air-traffic controllers, we paid the FBI. You know, Clinton and I understood how to fight in a way that was mature and it confused the Washington press corps but it didn’t confuse the country.”
Making a three-day swing through the pivotal early primary state, Gingrich has tried to keep trained on President Obama rather than responding to criticism from Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and other GOP rivals. He repeatedly tied Obama to liberal activist and community organizer Saul Alinsky, whose “radicalism” Gingrich claims was never fully vetted by the press.
“I’m going to stay focused on the president,” he said. “The audiences I’m talking to seem to like somebody who’s both positive about solutions and focused on the president.”
But when asked for his comment on GOP rival Rep. Michele Bachmann’s criticism of his immigration policy — she has called it amnesty for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country — the former congressman from Georgia was quickly thrown off message.
“Some people are just factually challenged. And it’s unfortunate,” he grumped to reporters, referring to the Minnesota Republican. “The voters will be pretty good over time in distinguishing between the people who know facts and people who don’t know facts.”
Gingrich has said he favors a path to legality for illegal immigrants who have been in the country for 25 years or more, have no criminal records, and are active in their communities — a number that would be far less than the 11 million estimated total number of illegal immigrants.
Asked about his previous support for requiring individuals to have health insurance, another topic Bachmann has been raising of late, Gingrich said: “I’ve said all along when we were fighting Hillary Clinton and Hillarycare, the Heritage Foundation, virtually the entire conservative movement, thought that the mandate was better than Hillarycare. Nobody’s disputed that. And nobody has said it wasn’t factually accurate.”