It took less than a minute into the latest Republican presidential debate for longtime front-runner Mitt Romney to show what lesson he took from his surprisingly big defeat in South Carolina: Bare the teeth and go for the jugular of the man who beat him so solidly.
The attacks on former House speaker Newt Gingrich were almost non-stop. Before most viewers had a chance to settle in to watch NBC's broadcast, Romney had lashed Gingrich as a Washington "influence peddler," a disgraced speaker forced out of office, a failed political leader, a lobbyist and a traitor to the conservative cause.
Asked by moderator Brian Williams how he squared those attacks with his lament last week that he wanted to avoid personal criticisms of other Republicans, Romney adopted a tight smile and recalled his Saturday shellacking. "I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina," said Romney. "And that was I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of the attacks. And I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out and without returning fire."
Gingrich was not bashful about fighting back, though he refused to get dragged into many of the specifics. He seemed more saddened than angry at the barrage from Romney. "He just went on and on and on," he said of Romney, adding that "he may have been a good financier. He's a terrible historian." Yet Gingrich, who really is a historian, offered up some questionable history himself.
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