On Monday morning during an interview with Fox News, Mitt Romney gave his most aggressive words yet against Newt Gingrich, showing that he’s now (rightly) concerned about Newt as competition for the Republican nomination.
Among Romney’s barbs:
• When asked about the economy and real estate, Romney turned the question to Freddie Mac, saying that it “caused part of the underpinnings and the collapse that have hurt so many people here in Florida. And of course Newt Gingrich was working for Freddie Mac. He said he was an historian. But he got paid $1.7 million. I don’t believe he was an historian. He was out speaking up Freddie Mac, and that was an enormous mistake and contributed to the crisis that’s here.”
• Romney continued by suggesting Gingrich should turn over his “work product” regarding Freddie Mac: “What was the contract? What did they pay him for? You don’t may someone $1.7 million just to write your history.… Did he write their history or did he instead talk about policy and provide access to people in power?”
• More generally, regarding Gingrich as a “big idea” guy: “The speaker has been working for the last 15 years on K-Street in Washington D.C. It’s a form of influence peddling or lobbying, depending on whose definition you want to use, but basically he’s connecting corporations with government. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just very different from the way he portrays himself as an author of big ideas. Big ideas like Freddie Mac, giving mortgage guarantees to people who couldn’t possibly repay those mortgages. That’s a big idea. I don’t think it’s a very good big idea.”
Clearly the Romney campaign recognizes that the Freddie Mac issue was kryptonite to Gingrich early in the campaign and they’re going to stick with it. The idea that Gingrich was in any way responsible for Freddie Mac’s behavior in the mortgage market is ridiculous and Romney’s attack will leave room for one of Gingrich’s patented outraged responses. On balance, however, this issue remains a real problem for Newt until and unless he can prove that what he did does not fit into the characterization that Romney is providing. And after all the time that Gingrich and others have spent demanding Romney’s tax returns, it will be difficult for the Speaker to argue against divulging the terms of a contract made with a company which was a quasi-governmental entity. By the way, when did the amount Gingrich got paid go from $1.6 million, as Romney’s Super-PAC ads say, to $1.7 million as Romney claimed this morning?
• Romney also asked for the contents of the House ethics investigation of Gingrich: “As you know, the Speaker was the only Speaker in American history to be reprimanded by his own members… and of course he was forced from office; he resigned in disgrace. So let’s look at the full record of what was said as opposed to the sanitized version of the final report. Because you know that if Nancy Pelosi has that record, it’s ultimately going to be in the hands of the president if Newt Gingrich were to become the nominee.”
This is a dangerous road for Romney to go down, perhaps as likely to backfire on him as to damage Gingrich. On the surface, Gingrich’s response will be satisfying: The ultra-partisan House Ethics Committee, led by Nancy Pelosi, heard 84 ethics charges made against Gingrich — all of them made by Democrats — and found him guilty of one charge, which related to the tax status of a course Gingrich taught. There was also a question of whether information provided related to the course was misleading, but Gingrich asserts that the shoddy work was done by a law firm that did him “a great disservice.” Gingrich paid a $300,000 fine that he is characterizing as a reimbursement for the cost of the investigation. Gingrich further claims that he asked House Republicans to vote yes on the reprimand in order to get it over with. In other words, Gingrich is going to turn this debate into reminding voters that his antagonist was Nancy Pelosi, and make himself seem the sympathetic victim of the Wicked Witch of the West.
Or at least he’ll try. Unfortunately for Gingrich, it’s not quite that simple. The Washington Post‘s pro-Romney blogger, Jennifer Rubin, as well as the left-leaning Politico are reminding people of Gingrich’s larger ethics issues including involvement in the House banking check-kiting scandal, the latter referring to a 1992 New York Times article which explains Newt’s banking Achilles’ heel while also foreshadowing Newt’s rise to power:
His own 22 overdrafts, including a $9,463 check to the Internal Revenue Service, were the heaviest weapons against him in an anti-incumbent campaign waged by an underfinanced former state senator. After lavishing $1.1 million on the race, Gingrich survived, by 980 votes, and the district is so Republican that he seems a shoo-in in November. If anti-incumbency campaigns like the one waged against him defeat enough Democrats, he may someday achieve his ambition of becoming Speaker of the House.
This issue, more than 84 ethics charges brought by friends of Nancy Pelosi, would seem to have the potential to damage Newt Gingrich and, as the Romney campaign desires, remind people that Gingrich “has more baggage than the airlines.“
• After pounding the Freddie Mac and ethics issues again, Romney added: “We need to understand, by the way, who his clients were in the health care world because he was lobbying for a Medicare bill, a health care bill, that could have significantly benefited some of his clients. If that’s the case, he was not only lobbying and influence peddling, he may have done things that were improper.”
Amusingly, the Fox News anchor, Bill Hemmer, then asked Romney, “On that point, on the debate, do you need to get tougher on Newt Gingrich?” Romney responded, as if forgetting the last 5 minutes of his own words, “I think we need to always be focused on the real target here, which is President Obama” — but even then Romney actually trained his fire in part on Gingrich: “Speaker Gingrich’s success in the last debate or two were because frankly the people who asked him questions asked him softball questions about the president or about himself. He didn’t attack the rest of us on the stage; he attacked either the moderator or the president, and that’s probably the best way to go.”
There’s a backhanded compliment if ever you’ve heard one.
I trust the Gingrich campaign staff are preparing for Mitt Romney’s sharp elbows, which will no doubt be flying during tonight’s debate (9 PM Eastern on NBC) and Thursday’s debate (8 PM Eastern on CNN). If there’s one thing you can say about Gingrich, it’s that when he can properly guess what pitch is coming, nobody hits more home runs. Indeed, one of the hardest to understand aspects of the Republican debates to date is Mitt Romney’s apparent unpreparedness for questions about his income and his tax returns, which even a political amateur would have known were coming. An argument can be made that Romney’s fumbling responses to questions about releasing his tax returns cost him the South Carolina primary. And while Romney’s 2010 tax return and 2011 estimate are due to be released on Tuesday, Romney’s recent promises to release “multiple years” will cause his putting out just two years to generate more questions than answers, doing precisely the opposite of Romney’s stated strategy of wanting to release all of his tax information at one time.
A Rasmussen Reports poll released Monday morning shows Newt Gingrich having jumped 9 points ahead of Mitt Romney in Florida, after Romney was 22 points ahead just eleven days ago. Newt’s strength is among Florida’s most conservative Republicans, with Romney still leading among moderates. That same poll shows 42 percent of Florida Republicans saying that Gingrich is strongest against Barack Obama versus 39 percent believing that of Mitt Romney.
Exit polls in South Carolina showed that Republican voters are intensely focused on beating Obama, far more than they are on having the most conservative candidate. This explains why Romney will focus so intensely on proving to voters that Gingrich’s history makes him unelectable whereas Gingrich will counter that Romney is not bold enough, not enough of a fighter, to beat Barack Obama.
All that said, the poll of Florida voters still shows an expectation of Romney becoming the nominee. As Scott Rasmussen put it, Romney now seems to be the likely nominee rather than the inevitable nominee. If you thought the last two debates were important, just wait until you see the next two.
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