ORMOND BEACH, Fla. - In the opening round of what promises to be a slug fest in Florida, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Sunday called rival Newt Gingrich a "failed leader" and influence-peddling lobbyist while suggesting it's now a three-way contest for the GOP nomination - a strategic assessment that favors his own chances of winning the state's Jan. 31 primary.
At a campaign rally after his disappointing loss in the South Carolina primary Saturday, Romney gave a biting assessment of Gingrich's record as House speaker and later as a business consultant to companies seeking access to Capitol Hill power brokers.
"At the end of four years (as speaker), it was proven that he was as failed leader. And he had to resign in disgrace. I don't know whether you knew that," Romney said, referring to a 1997 House reprimand of Gingrich for ethics violations, which also resulted in a $300,000 fine.
"Well, what's he been doing for 15 years? He's been working as a lobbyist, yeah. He's been working as a lobbyist and selling influence around Washington. He's been working for Freddie Mac. Heard of those guys?" Romney said, in a state where housing foreclosures, including some presided over by the mortgage giant, have left the economy in tatters.
He called on Gingrich to release the records of his contract with Freddie Mac, which paid him more than $1.6 million over eight years. "What was his work product there? What was he doing at Freddie Mac? Because Freddie Mac figures very prominently into the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down. It's time to turn that around!" Romney said.
In his remarks, Romney also pointedly described the Jan. 31 primary as three-way race pitting him against Gingrich and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Each candidate has now won one contest each - Santorum the Iowa caucuses by a handful of ballots, Romney the New Hampshire primary and Gingrich the South Carolina primary.
Although Gingrich is widely perceived as the main threat to Romney, a three-way contest would benefit Romney if it succeeds in splitting the conservative and populist wing of the party and allowing him to win on the strength of moderate, establishment support. Rep. Rand Paul of Texas is also still in the contest.
"There are three of us that have each won a contest so far -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina. You're going to have to make a decision. Which of the three should become our nominee?" he said.
In introducing her husband to the crowd, Ann Romney made a rare reference to the controversy over his reluctance to release tax returns. "I understand Mitt's going to release his tax forms this week. I want to remind you of where we know our riches are. Our riches are with our families," she said, perhaps as a way of bracing supporters for the expected release Tuesday of the documents, which will reveal details of the couple's tremendous wealth.
Referring to their five sons and 16 grandchildren, she said, "That is where our values are. That is how we measure our wealth, through those children."