LEIGH ACRES, Fla. -- With the GOP primary race growing nastier by the hour, endangered front-runner Mitt Romney dubbed rival Newt Gingrich an “influence-peddler,” while a super PAC backing Gingrich unleashed a new ad featuring Romney touting his support of a health care mandate that President Obama later adopted.
At a campaign stop here, Romney picked up the sharp attack on Gingrich from last night's candidates' debate and challenged the former House speaker to release all of the records relating to the $1.6 million in fees he earned from mortgage giant Freddie Mac over eight years after leaving Congress. Romney charged that Gingrich's glowing appraisal of Freddie Mac while he was under contract with the quasi-governmental agency likely dissuaded some conservatives from cracking down on it and its sister organization, Fannie Mae, as the housing market bubble swelled.
“You know I noted that he has been working as an influence peddler, let me tell you how that works,” Romney said. “... He was standing up as the former speaker of the House and someone who many people respected as a conservative leader, he was standing up and defending Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, and so conservatives in Congress and conservatives around the country, instead of arguing to get rid of these entities, to scale the market back and get rid of these guys, they said, 'Well if Newt Gingrich thinks it’s a good idea, why, we ought to go along with it.’”
"That’s what's known as influence peddling. You get paid and then you go out and say things that influence other people. That’s the nature of what’s been going on in this country. It is wrong, it must stop, we can’t have influence peddlers leading our party."
Gingrich was also put on the defensive in an interview with CNN Tuesday evening. Asked why the contract was signed by the head of the lobbying division of Freddie Mac, Gingrich repeated his earlier assertions that he had been careful never to lobby for Freddie Mac, and said, “I don't care who signed the contract, I cared what I did.” He noted that the head of lobbying, Craig Thomas, was also the head of public policy.
But he and his supporters gave as good as they got on Tuesday, just a week out from the state’s pivotal primary.
Flush with a new $5 million donation from the wife of a Las Vegas casino mogul, a pro-Gingrich super PAC made a $6 million ad buy in Florida and launched an ad attacking Romney by using his own words against him.
“I’m not a partisan Republican,” Romney says in a previous interview featured in the Gingrich ad. “I’m someone who is moderate. My views are progressive.”
The ad hits hard on the issue of Romney’s embrace of a government mandate for people to buy health insurance when he was the governor of Massachusetts, a model that was later used by Obama.
Gingrich also criticized Romney on the stump as he addressed huge crowds that thronged to see him in Sarasota, where 2,500 people turned out, and in Naples, where over 4,000 were on hand. Gingrich criticized Romney for hiring many of ex-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist’s staffers.
Crist was once a popular politician in the Sunshine State, earning endorsements from Gingrich and numerous other Republicans. But he lost his political luster after deciding to run as an independent in the 2010 general election for the U.S. Senate, only to lose to Republican Marco Rubio, now a darling of the right.
“We discovered last night that Mitt Romney has picked up Charlie Crist’s campaign team,” Gingrich told the crowd at the Tick Tock Restaurant to a smattering of boos. “I thought that tells you everything you need to know about this primary.”
At a campaign event, Romney had a sharp rejoinder for his rival, pointing out that Gingrich's entire campaign staff quit over the summer after the candidate and his wife, Callista, decided to take a long vacation in Greece. “Maybe because he lost his whole staff, he’s consumed with other people’s staff,“ Romney said. “I don’t think this is about staff, I think this is about the candidate.”
Gingrich also took a swipe at Romney’s newly hired debate coach, Brett O’Donnell, who had previously worked with Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota when she was a GOP presidential candidate. The former House speaker described O’Donnell as someone “whose specialty is to say as many untruths as fast as you can,” as he continued to portray Romney as using inaccurate smears.
The once financially strapped candidate also was enjoying a substantial influx of small donations spurred by his double-digit win over Romney in Saturday's South Carolina primary.
Since then, Gingrich said he raised $2 million, $1.7 million of it online and more than twice what he raised in the entire third quarter of 2011. Along with a $5 million donation to his super PAC from supporter Miriam Adelson, it gives him the ability to compete in a state as large, and with as many media markets, as Florida.
On Tuesday, the campaign began airing "The Moment," a 30-second television spot that includes footage of Gingrich's recent debate performances, including an incident when he aggressively challenged moderator Juan Williams.