(Photo: REUTERS/Scott Audette)
Newt Gingrich won Saturday's South Carolina primary, in part, due to his two strong debate performances in which he took on the media and chief rival Mitt Romney. In the first debate since that victory, Gingrich was comparatively subdued while Romney went on the attack in Tampa, Fla., Monday night.
Romney's main criticisms of Gingrich dealt with his tenure as speaker of the House and the work he did as a consultant for Freddie Mac and other companies after his forced resignation from the speakership.
"The speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994 and at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace," Romney said in answering his first question in the debate.
Rather than answer Romney's opening attack, Gingrich said he did not want to "spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney's misinformation," and he would answer those issues on his website, Newt.org, the next day.
The audience was quieter than they were in the South Carolina debates. This likely worked to Gingrich's disadvantage. The South Carolina audiences gave Gingrich several standing ovations, which contributed to the general consensus that Gingrich performed best in those debates.
Romney also accused Gingrich of "influence peddling" after he left office. Last week, Gingrich had criticized Romney for not releasing his tax returns. After several inconsistent answers, Romney announced he would release them on Tuesday. He did so Tuesday morning, and his 2010 tax returns show he paid 13.9 percent on his adjusted gross income of $21.7 million in 2010.
On Monday, Romney said Gingrich should release documents related to his work at Freddie Mac, which he did two hours before the debate. In the debate, Romney noted that the contract was signed by Freddie Mac's chief lobbyist and said that this was evidence that Gingrich was hired to use his connections to help the company gain influence in legislation affecting the company.
"I don't think we could possibly retake the White House if the person who is leading our party is the person who was working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac," Romney said.
Freddie Mac, along with Fannie Mae, are government sponsored enterprises that provide housing loan guarantees. They are widely believed to have contributed to the housing bubble that was at the center of the financial collapse in 2008.
Later in the debate, Gingrich was asked again if he had "peddled influence" while working for Freddie Mac. Though he had spent much time last week attacking Romney for his work as head of Bain Capital, a venture capital investment firm, Gingrich answered by saying, "You know, there's a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty, and that's sad."
Gingrich also said that his consulting firm hired an expert to teach its staff how to not meet the legal requirements to be considered a lobbyist, "precisely because I thought this type of defamatory and factually false charge would be made."
Romney also accused Gingrich of influence peddling when he met with members of Congress and advocated for passage of Medicare Part D, the prescription drug benefit for seniors, while getting paid as a consultant by drug companies.
Florida, one of the states that has been most affected by the collapse in housing prices, will hold the next primary on Jan. 31.
"Did the U.S. government make it too easy to buy a home?" host Brian Williams asked former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
"Unfortunately, yes," Santorum answered. He also criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for filibustering a bill he sponsored in 2005 and 2006 that would have placed greater restrictions on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul noted that he also introduced legislation to restrict Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and agreed that government created the problem that led to the housing market bubble and subsequent collapse.
"The whole bubble was easily seen, the consequences were anticipated, it was all government manufactured," Paul said.
The next debate will be on Thursday and televised by CNN.