TAMPA, Fla. -- An aggressive Mitt Romney on Monday made it clear that he will seek to make rival Newt Gingrich's record the central issue in the days leading up to Florida's primary, launching a multipronged attack on several past controversies and calling the former House speaker "highly erratic."
"He voted in favor of establishing the Department of Education, and yet he gets in a debate and says we should get rid of the Department of Education and send all the education issues back to the states," Romney said. "He’s ... opposed vehemently to the Massachusetts health care system, and yet just a couple years ago wrote about what a superb system it was.
"He’s gone from pillar to post almost like a pinball machine, from item to item in a way which is highly erratic. It does not suggest a stable, thoughtful course which is normally associated with leadership."
Romney also picked up on an argument that Rick Santorum has sought to make -- that there could be a surprise with Gingrich that Republicans can ill afford.
"I think it’s an appropriate that people should know if there’s going to be an October surprise," Romney said. "And in the case of the speaker, he’s got some records which could represent an October surprise.... So let’s, let’s see the records from the ethics investigation; let’s see what they show, let’s see who his clients were."
At a subsequent event in Tampa, Gingrich on Monday shrugged off Romney's attacks, telling an audience here: “If you’ve been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate.”
Gingrich said on Monday morning he would seek to publicly release his contract from his Freddie Mac work. He has steadfastly denied doing any consulting on behalf of the mortgage giant, saying that his firm provided historical advice.
One of Gingrich’s campaign surrogates pushed back on Monday against Mitt Romney’s attacks, comparing his friend's Freddie Mac work to the ex-Massachusetts governor’s work in the business world.
“The governor did consulting work in terms of financial services,” former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., told reporters in a conference call. “I think beating up Newt Gingrich for consulting, or beating up Mitt Romney for consulting in the private sector -- I think that’s about like saying, let’s beat up Michael Jordan for being a great basketball player.”
But Romney made clear he sees his rival as vulnerable on the issue. "What Freddie Mac did in this market is to cause part of the underpinnings of the collapse which has hurt so many people here in Florida, and of course, Newt Gingrich was working for Freddie Mac," he told Fox News on Monday.
Romney's team also rolled out what would be the first negative advertisement directly from his campaign, aimed at Gingrich. Called "Florida Families," it highlights Sunshine State families who suffered at the same time that Gingrich profited from Freddie Mac.
In the 30-second commercial, a narrator says, "A historian? Really?" and concludes by saying, "If Newt wins, this guy would be very happy" -- flashing an imagine of an exuberant President Obama.
Romney's allies in the Republican establishment signaled that they would join him in attacking Gingrich on trustworthiness and transparency. “He’s called upon Governor Romney to be transparent,” said former GOP hopeful and Romney supporter Tim Pawlenty in a conference call with reporters. “Well, Speaker Gingrich needs to be transparent.”
Pawlenty added to the clamor for more information about the now-opaque nature of his work with Freddie Mac. The issue takes on additional weight in Florida, a state ravaged by the mortgage crisis. Pawlenty and Florida House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford focused their attacks on Gingrich’s involvement with Freddie Mac, which they charge contributed to the collapse of the housing market.
Pawlenty rejected the notion that Gingrich served as a historian. “The notion that he was paid $1.7 million as a historian for Freddie Mac is just BS,” Pawlenty said. “It’s just nonsense.” But he added that he had nothing against lobbyists -- just ones who obscure their jobs.
“One of the issues in this campaign is who represents Washington, D.C. -- and all of the dysfunction and incredible disappointment and frustration that the United States of America and its people have towards Washington, D.C. -- and who doesn’t. Newt Gingrich has spent almost his entire adult life either as a member of the Congress or as somebody who’s been an influence-peddler, post-speakership, in the way that I’ve described. And to suggest that he’s the outsider simply defies the facts,” Pawlenty said. “There’s only one outsider in this race … and that’s Mitt Romney.”
Weatherford added, “Our party is in a moment where we have to decide what we want to do and [the] direction that we’re going to go, as we face what I believe is going to be one of the most historic elections in our lifetime. And we need principled leaders, not political opportunists. Transparency goes both ways, and Newt Gingrich spent the last two weeks talking about transparency and coming after Governor Romney from that front, but it works both ways."
Romney's campaign also unveiled a new anti-Gringrich theme, "Unreliable Leader," issuing a news release showing a photo of Gingrich with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a widely loathed figure among conservatives. Gingrich appeared in a 2008 ad with Pelosi calling for action on climate change -- a move that he has acknowledged was a grave mistake on his part.
In the Fox News interview, Romney indicated that one of his issue focuses will be on health care, a particularly important issue to Florida. "I know something about making health care work more like a market," he said. "I understand how markets work, and I believe the people here in Florida will give me the boost I need to go on to the next few states and get delegates I need to become our nominee."
Catherine Hollander and Sarah Huisenga contributed