TAMPA, Fla.-Mitt Romney took the stage for Monday night's Republican presidential debate determined to shake what had been a terrible last seven days. In one week he'd lost not one but two states: His previous Iowa win wiped away and his hopes in South Carolina dashed.
So the former frontrunner came out fighting in the first of two Florida debates ahead of that state's Jan. 31 primary, unleashing an offensive of negative talking points in the debate's opening moments. He directed all of them at his top nemesis, Newt Gingrich.
A role reversal has occurred in this GOP presidential fight: Romney as the aggressor and Gingrich as the defender of his own record. Romney, criticized during this marathon debate season for being too laid back and friendly with his competitors on stage, said he learned something from the South Carolina beating he took at the hands of Gingrich.
"I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire," said the former Massachusetts governor, who tagged Gingrich as "an influence peddler in Washington" who had to "resign in disgrace" as House speaker.
"We can't possibly retake the White House if the nominee is a person who was working with the chief lobbyist for Freddie Mac," added Romney, referring to Gingrich's paid consulting gig for the governmental organization that played a large role in the nation's housing crisis.
Romney said the election is "about leadership." He then tied Gingrich to Democrat Nancy Pelosi (for their joint television spot on global warming) and reminded the audience that Gingrich first described Republican Paul Ryan's budget as right wing social engineering.
In previous debates, Romney liked to act above the scrum that occurred around him on stage. Instead he would focus his verbal ire on President Barack Obama. But Romney chucked that strategy in Tampa Monday night, suggesting that the Florida primary could become a bare-knuckled brawl.
Facing the fiercest attacks of any debate so far, Gingrich initially tried to deflect. The former speaker's new lead could partly be attributed to his solid string of debate sound bites. But this time it was Gingrich, not Romney, who tried to play the role of aloof frontrunner acting above the fray.
"Look I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney's misinformation," Gingrich said after Romney's initial barrage. "This is the worst kind of trivial politics. He said at least four things that are false."
But Romney persisted and seemed to eventually get under Gingrich's skin with the lobbying issue. The two engaged in a testy exchange that left even moderator Brian Williams of NBC News silent for a long stretch.
Gingrich tried to push back, bringing up his favorite attack line: Romney's work with Bain Capital, a Boston-based consulting firm. But Romney did not retreat.
"We didn't do any work with the government," Romney said of Bain. "I didn't have an office on K Street."
"You just jumped a long way over there, friend," Gingrich interjected, clearly flustered by Romney's persistence at depicting him as a lobbyist. "Let me be very clear, because I understand your technique, which you used on McCain, you used on Huckabee," he said, referring to Romney's GOP rivals in 2008.
Gingrich has compared his work for Freddie Mac to that of an historian. He released on Monday night, just hours before the debate, a contract that showed a $300,000 retainer paid by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. to Gingrich's consulting firm in 2006.
With Florida one of the state's hardest hit by the housing crisis, Romney is expected to keep pounding at Gingrich's ties to Freddie Mac.
There may have been four people on the stage at the University of South Florida. But the clashes between Romney and Gingrich, particularly during the debate's early stages, took all the oxygen away from Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. As the debate, televised on NBC, went to its first commercial break, moderator Williams promised that the other two competitors would join in the conversation when the questioning resumed.
But the debate's energy clearly belonged to the Romney versus Gingrich clashes and its new dynamic.
"I think the American public deserves a discussion about how we beat Barack Obama," said Gingrich, sounding a lot like Romney did a few debates ago during his turn in the frontrunner chair.
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