Romney Paints Gingrich as 'Influence Peddler,' Newt Tones It Down in Florida Debate
In a lackluster debate between the GOP candidates tonight, Newt Gingrich extinguished the fire that normally flares from his nostrils in an apparent bid to maintain his frontrunner status in Florida just days ahead of the Sunshine State's Republican presidential primary. No amount of taunting by Mitt Romney about the former House speaker's gig as Freddie Mac's house historian could stir Gingrich's instinct for the brutal counter-attacks that have characterized his candidacy until now. The debate aired on NBC, and was co-sponsored by the National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times.
Success, it seems, has given us a kinder, gentler Newt, whose quest for the GOP presidential nomination seems not quite so quixotic as it did a mere two weeks ago, when he failed to register much of a claim in either the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. Since his big win in South Carolina on Saturday, however, Gingrich now has something to protect.
It's not that Gingrich totally took Romney's needling lying down, but limited his rejoinder to calling Romney a "terrible historian" who, in his attack on the former speaker, uttered four false things, which Gingrich declined to name. Not even Romney's reminder that Gingrich had resigned from the House of Representatives "in disgrace" could move Newt to the sort of pugilistic response for which he is known.
Here's a recounting of one exchange by Michael O'Brien of MSNBC (video at the end of this post):
"The fact is I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history, including the history of Washington," Gingrich said of his work. (His campaign released a copy of his contract with Freddie Mac this evening at the behest of the Romney campaign.)
Romney insisted that Gingrich's advocacy work on behalf of Freddie Mac -- as well as the ex-speaker's push for a prescription drug benefit in Medicare during a legislative battle in 2003 -- representing nothing more than lobbying by another name.
"If you're getting paid by health companies … and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you'd like. I call it influence-peddling," Romney said. "It is not right. It is not right. You have a conflict."
Part of the blame for the snooze-a-thon lay with moderator Brian Williams, who failed to even mention Gingrich's vitriolic, us-against-them victory speech in South Carolina, never mind ask the victor about it. Williams asked not one question about the race-based politicking that took place only days before in the Palmetto State. It would have been interesting to hear Ron Paul's response, for instance, to a question about why he chose to deliver a speech about states' rights on the capitol grounds in Columbia, where, according to the Associated Press, he was surrounded by "Civil War icons" and the the Confederate flag -- but never mind. Instead, Paul got to riff on Iran and Cuba. (Leave them alone.)
Rick Santorum was off whatever game he has, at least until the very end, when he gave a strong closing statement about how he is the only true conservative in the race. Romney and Gingrich are of a piece with Obama, he alleged, on issues that matter most to conservatives.
Gingrich, following a thread unspooled in his victory speech, lauded Ron Paul for his call to end the federal reserve.
Still, despite Gingrich's relatively weak performance (when compared to past debates), Romney came away weakened, unable to give a credible explanation about why he wouldn't release more than one year's tax returns when, as a potential presidential candidate in 1968, his father, Michigan Gov. George Romney, released 12 years' worth of tax returns. The best Romney could do was to say that he and his father didn't agree on everything.
In his criticism of Gingrich's tax plan, Romney was forced to admit that under his rival's plan, he would pay exactly 0 percent in taxes -- because all of his income last year was made through capital gains (return on investments), meaning that Romney did not much in the way of work in 2010. When reminded of his loss to Teddy Kennedy in a quest for the Massachusetts Senate seat, Romney gloated that in order to remain competitive in that contest, Kennedy was forced to mortgage his house (because of the amount of money required to defeat the far wealthier Romney). Basically, Romney reminded Florida voters that he is so stinking rich that the Kennedys look poor by comparison.
In answer to a question about immigration, Romney coined the word of the night: "self-deportation," which is what he said his immigration policy would cause undocumented workers to do. That led me to wonder if Romney would consider his ancestors' move to Mexico an act of self-deportation.
Newt Gingrich did offer up something from his Department of Big Newtonian Ideas, though: he said that scientific innovation could be spurred by the granting of prizes. (Carol, show them what they're playing for!)
Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington correspondent. She also writes for the AFL-CIO Now blog. Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/addiestan