Gingrich and Romney spar in center court

Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and former Speaker of the House Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, right, take part in the Republican debate, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Republican presidential candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and former Speaker of the House Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, right, take part in the Republican debate, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

(Commentary) Newt Gingrich is now the man to beat. He has piled up double-digit leads in key primary states and survived a debate on Saturday that took him through the gauntlet of his past alleged and legitimate transgressions.

Mitt Romney, who has spent the last few months above the fray and prepping his nomination acceptance speech, admitted to Politico on Monday that Gingrich now leads the pack.

For now, the center court of the GOP nomination is inhabited by what fellow GOP presidential nominee candidate Michele Bachmann calls "Newt Romney."  It's the measured, risk-averse, $10,000 bet businessman who believes he can do what President Obama has not to revive the economy versus the former House speaker, business consultant and fountain of ideas who believes his force of personality and IQ can fix the country. 

Romney has been hesitant to put on the boxing gloves, but allowed that voters are hungry for the "red meat" that presumably Gingrich is offering with his combative style and barrage of ideas and statements--such as calling Palestinians an "invented people"--that swoop and pounce like angry birds. 

"I am what I am. I don't tend to say outrageous things about other people that I don't believe in order to win political points," Romney said in his interview with Politico.

However, Romney veered from his avoidance of red meat confrontations in suggesting that Gingrich give back the nearly $2 million he received in compensation from Freddie Mac for consulting services.

"One of the things that I think that people recognize in Washington is that people go there to serve the people and then they stay there to serve themselves. And contacts in Washington, working for Freddie Mac, getting paid $1.6 million,"  Romney told Fox News. "By the way, a very different number than he said in the first debate, he said $300,000 and he was there as an historian. That would make him the highest paid historian in history. Look, this whole Washington crowd of insiders that stay there, get paid a lot of money there because of their associations, I think it's something the American people are tired of."

Gingrich returned fire not by addressing the allegations, but hitting back at Romney's record as a business executive.

"I would just say that if Gov. Romney would like to give back all of the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, that I would be glad to listen to him. And I bet you $10 -- not $10,000 -- that he won't take the offer," he said, referencing Romney's $10,000 bet challenge to Rick Perry during the Iowa debate.

Romney's camp called upon Staples founder Tom Stemberg to respond to the Gingrich grenade: 

"Newt Gingrich comes from the world where politicians are paid millions after they retire to influence their friends in Washington. Mitt Romney comes from the private sector, where the economy is built by hard work and entrepreneurial drive. It's clear that after 30 years as a Washington insider, Newt Gingrich has no clue how the real world economy works. After 25 years in business, Mitt Romney understands how jobs come and go, and what we need to do to get our economy back on track. If Newt Gingrich is our party's nominee, the choice in next year's election will be between two professional politicians, two Washington insiders, two people with no experience in the real world of job creation."

Romney's company Bain Capital provided the seed money for Stemberg to launch Staples in 1986.

If the sniping and escalating verbal sparring between Gingrich and Romney becomes the story, rather than how they plan to solve the country's problems, the other candidates staying out of the fray may have a chance to enter the ring for the final rounds. 

  • Dan Farber On Twitter»

    Dan has more than 20 years of journalism experience. He has served as editor in chief of CBSNews.com, CNET News, ZDNet, PC Week, and MacWeek.

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