CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Seeking to cut into Newt Gingrich’s support among tea-party backers in this deeply conservative state, Mitt Romney on Saturday joined the criticism the former House Speaker has received about his consulting firm getting paid $1.6 million from mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
“I think as tea partiers concentrate on that, for instance, they’ll say, `Wow, this really isn’t the guy that would represent our views,” Romney told reporters after a campaign event in Charleston. “I think the Tea Party is anxious to have people who are outside Washington coming in to change Washington, as opposed to people who stayed in Washington for 30 years."
Gingrich has steadfastly maintained he did no lobbying work on behalf of Freddie Mac, which he said approached him because of his credentials as a historian. Romney said, ”I’m going to let the lawyers decide what is and what is not lobbying, but you know, when it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, typically it’s a duck."
Romney’s remarks came after Rep. Michele Bachmann laced into Gingrich at Thursday debate in Sioux Falls, Iowa, about his Freddie Mac work. She has continued to bring up the issue, saying she resents Gingrich for being so dismissive of her charges. Rep. Ron Paul also has gone after Gingrich on the subject.
Attempting to rebut the growing criticism, Gingrich said at a tele-town hall meeting on Saturday that the criticism against him is “wildly inaccurate.”
“We were paid annually for six years, so the numbers you see are six years of work,” he added. ”Most of that money went to pay for overhead, for staff, for other things. It didn’t go directly to me. It went to the company which provided consulting advice. And our advice included, how do you help poor people earn the right to be in a house and be a home owner?”
Gingrich currently enjoys a wide lead in Palmetto State polls over Romney. But the state’s Republican establishment, led by first-term Gov. Nikki Haley, has rallied around the former Massachusetts governor. Many Republicans regard him as a formidable opponent to President Obama, though conservatives continue to be less enthusiastic about Romney.
Romney also continued to take a harder line on illegal immigration than Gingrich, who has said he supports a path to citizenship for certain children of illegal immigrants with military service. However, Romney is seeking not to alienate Hispanic voters, and on Saturday said he backs giving those in the country illegally “a temporary period of time to arrange their affairs” before being sent back to their home country to apply for citizenship.
“Those who have come here illegally should not be given a preferential route to becoming a permanent resident or citizen,” Romney said. “Those who have come here illegally, we'll treat with respect and dignity and compassion, but they're not going to get a better deal in terms of becoming a permanent resident or citizen than people who have waited in line.”
Romney affirmed his qualified support for the controversial interrogation method known as waterboarding, which many Democrats consider a form of torture but which many conservatives insist has been useful in fighting terrorism.
“I don’t believe that we should list what is or is not torture, but we will have a policy of doing what we think is in our best interest -- we'll use enhanced interrogation techniques, which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now,” he said.
Romney said he hopes his extensive background in business will allay suspicions among tea party supporters. “They want to someone who will get the economy going who understands jobs and the economy and not just government,” he said.
At a later event on Saturday, Romney also poked fun at Gingrich over a 2008 ad he made with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a widely loathed figure among conservatives, calling for action on climate change. Gingrich has repeatedly said he regrets having done the ad.
Asked what he planned to do about climate change, Romney responded jokingly: "Well, first off, I'm not planning on cutting an ad with Nancy Pelosi."
Turning serious, he responded that he believes humans possibly contribute to global warming, but that it is difficult to know how much. As a result, he said, the United States should not just throw money at the problem, and must become energy independent. Leading scientists, however, have called for immediate action.
Sarah Huisenga contributed