Updated: 2:30 p.m. ET
Right out of the gate in Sunday morning's Republican presidential debate, Newt Gingrich blasted his so-called "frontrunner" rival, Mitt Romney, for dishing out what he described as "pious baloney" regarding his political history and motivations for running for office.
Just ten hours after a Saturday night debate during which, his rivals wasted no time taking aim at the former Massachusetts governor during Sunday's MSNBC-hosted debate.
"I realize the red light doesn't mean anything to you because you are the frontrunner," a Gingrich quipped to Romney. "But could we drop a little bit of the pious baloney?"
Gingrich was disputing Romney's characterization of his political career as purely civic-minded, in which Romney contended that he declined to run for re-election as Massachusetts governor because "that would be about me" rather than the state and that for him, "politics is not a career."
"For me, my career was being in business and starting a business and making it successful," Romney said. "My life's passion has been my family, my faith and my country. I believe, by virtue of the experiences I've had, that I'm in a good position to make a contribution to Washington."
"I went to Massachusetts to make a difference. I didn't go there to begin a political career, running time and time again," he said. "Run again? That would be about me."
Gingrich lost no time in jumping on this assessment.
"Can we drop a little bit of the pious baloney? The fact is, you ran in '94 and lost. That's why you weren't serving in the Senate with Rick Santorum. The fact is, you had a very bad re-election rating, you dropped out of office, you had been out of state for something like 200 days preparing to run for president. You didn't have this interlude of citizenship while you thought about what you do. You were running for president while you were governor," he said. "
"So this idea that suddenly citizenship showed up in your mind -- just level with the American people: You've been running for -- at least since the 1990's," he continued.
(After the debate, Gingrich used the "pious baloney" line to encourage his supporters to donate to his campaign: "Help me stop Romney's pious baloney today," he said on Twitter, before posting a link to his campaign's donation page.)
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also questioned Romney's record as Massachusetts governor, wondering, "If his record was so great as governor of Massachusetts, why didn't he run for re-election?"
"If you didn't want to even stand before the people of Massachusetts and run on your record, if it was that great, why didn't -- why did you bail out?" he asked. "The bottom line is, I go and fight the fight."
Romney, in response to the attacks, argued that "citizenship has always been on my mind" and that he's not running for president to "pay a mortgage" but out of civic duty.
"Mr. Speaker, citizenship has always been on my mind," Romney told Gingrich. "I happened to see my dad run for governor when he was 54-years-old. He had good advice to me. He said, Mitt, never get involved in politics if you have to win an election to pay a mortgage. If you find yourself in a position where you can serve, well you ought to have a responsibility to do so, if you think you can make a difference."
"I am in this race because I care about the country," Romney argued.
The candidate, who leads New Hampshire polls by a hefty (if declining) margin and is largely considered the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, continued to face questions Sunday about his conservative credentials -- particularly from Newt Gingrich, who argued that the so-called "relatively timid Massachusetts moderate" would have a tough time running against President Obama because he does not present enough of a contrast from the president.
"The fact is, President Obama is going to have a very hard re-election effort. But I do think the bigger the contrast, the bolder ideas, the clearer the choice, the harder it is for that billion-dollar campaign to smear his way back into office," Gingrich said. "I think he will have a very hard time getting re- elected -- getting elected."
Santorum, in painting a contrast between himself and Romney, presented himself as a candidate who would fight for "the conservative principles." Referring to Romney's 1994 unsuccessful Senate bid against the late Senator Ted Kennedy, a longtime liberal lawmaker, Santorum accused Romney of being someone who would "bail out" and "run to the left of Ted Kennedy" if necessary.
"I stood up and fought for the conservative principles. I didn't do what Governor Romney did in 1994. I was running the same year he ran, in 1994. I ran in a tough state of Pennsylvania against an incumbent. Governor Romney lost by almost 20 points. Why? Because at the end of that campaign, he wouldn't stand for conservative principles... He said he was going to be to the left of Ted Kennedy on gay rights, on abortion, a whole host of other issues," Santorum said. "We want someone who's going to stand up and fight for the conservative principles, not bail out and not run, and not run to the left of Ted Kennedy."
Romney said he ran against Kennedy because, he thought at the time, "someone's got to run against him." He said that even then he realized he "didn't have a ghost of a chance at beating him."
"I went in and gave it a real battle and went after it," Romney said. "I'm very proud of the fact that I have stood up as a citizen to battle when I felt it was best for the nation."
After a brief respite from the early attacks, Romney was questioned again by Gingrich over a series of negative attack ads, put out by a pro-Romney super PAC, which Gingrich at least partially disputes.
"Governor, I wish you would calmly and directly state it is your former staff running the PAC," Gingrich demanded. "It is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC. And you know some of the ads are -- aren't true. Just say that. It's straightforward."
Romney acknowledged that those responsible for the ads were his supporters, but continued to maintain -- as he has for weeks -- that he is legally prohibited from directing the tone or content of those ads which the PAC puts out. (Super PACs can legally spend unlimited funds to support a candidate as long as they do not directly coordinate with the candidate's campaign.)
"Well, of course it's former staff of mine. And, of course they're people who support me. They wouldn't be putting money into a PAC that supports me if they weren't people who support me," Romney said.
"With regards to their ads, I haven't seen them. And, as you know, under the law, I can't direct their ads," he continued. "If there's anything in them that's wrong, I hope they take it out."
Romney then ran through a laundry list of the accusations leveled against Gingrich in the ads before addressing one of the claims -- that Gingrich supported federal funding for some abortions -- many have deemed dubious.
"If there was something related to abortion that it said that was wrong, I hope they pulled it out. Anything wrong, I'm opposed to," he said. "But, you know, this ain't -- this ain't beanbag. We're going to come into a campaign, and we're going to describe the differences between us...But I do think the rhetoric, Mr. Speaker, I think was a little over-the-top."
At the last remark, Gingrich appeared visibly incredulous.
"You think my rhetoric was over-the-top, but your ads were totally reasonable?" he laughed. "That's what I don't understand."