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Romney goes on offense in GOP debate

Updated: 10:48 p.m. ET

The knives are out.

In the wake of Newt Gingrich's double-digit victory over Mitt Romney in Saturday's South Carolina primary, Romney aggressively attacked Gingrich during Monday night's Republican presidential debate, with Romney particularly hitting Gingrich for his record being a "peddler of influence" for Freddie Mac.

Romney wasted no time in going after Gingrich at the NBC-sponsored debate at University of South Florida -- a new strategy for a candidate who has often tried to position himself above the fray in previous debates, directing most of his attacks at President Obama, not his Republican rivals.

But after his shellacking in South Carolina, the former Massachusetts governor wasn't going to miss a chance to tear down his rival.

"I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire," he said when asked why he was targeting Gingrich after previously suggesting he didn't want to spend time going after fellow Republicans.

Romney particularly skewered Gingrich for his consulting position at Freddie Mac -- particularly Gingrich's claim that he worked at the firm as a "historian" rather than a lobbyist.

"Well, Mr. Speaker, you were -- on this stage, at a prior debate, you said you were paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac for an historian -- as an historian. They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians. That adds up to about $1.6 million," Romney said. "They weren't hiring you as an historian. And this contract proves that you were not an historian. You were a consultant."

"I was a consultant," Gingrich said.

"It doesn't say that you provided historical experience," Romney continued. "It said that you were as a consultant. And you were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac, not the CEO, not the head of public affairs. By the chief lobbyist at Freddie Mac," said Romney. 

"You also spoke publicly in favor of these GSEs, these government-sponsored entities, at a very time when Freddie Mac was getting America in a position where we would have had a massive housing collapse. You could have spoken out aggressively. You could have spoken out in a way to say these guys are wrong, this needs to end. But instead, you were being paid by them. You were making over $1 million at the same time people in Florida were being hurt by millions of dollars," he added. 

Gingrich noted that he didn't take home all the money his company earned while working for Freddie Mac, and said he offered "strategic advice" based on his knowledge of "the history of Washington.

"We had a company. The company had three offices. The company was being paid," Gingrich said. "My share annually was about $35,000 a year. And the fact is I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history, including the history of Washington."

"But if you read the contract which we have posted, and the Center for Health Transformation had to get permission to post, it says very clearly supposed to do consulting work. The governor did consulting work for years. I have never suggested his consulting work was lobbying," he said. "So let me start right there. There is no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I have never done any lobbying."

 When asked directly if he had "peddled influence," as Romney had alleged earlier in the debate, Gingrich decried the accusation.

"You know, there is a point in the process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty. And that's sad," he said. "The fact is I have had a very long career of trying to represent the people of Georgia and, as Speaker, the people of the United States. I think it's pretty clear to say that I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying."

When Gingrich seemed to be suggest that Romney's company Bain Capital had ties to the government, Romney quickly noted that "We didn't do any work with the government. I didn't have an office on K Street. I wasn't a lobbyist. I didn't -- had never worked -- I've never worked in Washington."

"You have congressmen who say...that you came and lobbied them with regards to Medicare Part D, at the same time," Romney continued, referring to a federal program subsidizing the costs of prescription drugs for Medicare beneficiaries.

"Now, wait. Whoa, whoa," Gingrich said. "You just jumped a long way over here, friend."

"Well, another -- another area of influence-peddling," said Romney.

"I have always publicly favored a stronger Medicare program," said Gingrich. "I publicly favored Medicare Part D for a practical reason, and that reason is simple. The U.S. government was not prepared to give people anything -- insulin, for example -- but they would pay for kidney dialysis. They weren't prepared to give people Lipitor, but they'd pay for open-heart surgery. That is a terrible way to run Medicare."

He said he was "proud" that he had "publicly, openly advocated Medicare Part D. It has saved lives. It's run on a free enterprise model. It also included health savings accounts and it include Medicare alternatives, which gave people choices."  

Romney, unsurprisingly, was not satisfied with this response. 

"Here's why it's a problem, Mr. Speaker. Here's why it's a problem. And that is, if you're getting paid by health companies, if your entities are getting paid by health companies that could benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you'd like. I call it influence-peddling," he said. "It is not right. It is not right. You have a conflict. You are -- you are being paid by companies at the same time you're encouraging people to pass legislation which is in their favor."

Earlier in the evening, Romney also attacked Gingrich's credibility as a leader, targeting his contentious tenure as speaker of the House in the 1990s.

"I think as you choose the president of the United States, you're looking for a person who can lead this country in a very critical time, lead the free world, and the free world has to lead the entire world," Romney said when asked about his electability compared to the rest of the candidates. "I think it's about leadership, and the Speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace," he said.

Romney attempted to paint stark differences between himself and the former speaker.

"When I was fighting against cap and trade, the Speaker was sitting down with Nancy Pelosi on a sofa encouraging it. When I was fighting to say that the Paul Ryan plan to solve Medicare was bold and right, he was saying that it was right wing social engineering," he said.

Gingrich said he did not want to "spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney's misinformation" and did not respond directly, saying only that Romney "said at least four things that were false" and that his website would publish an explanation tomorrow. Gingrich also claimed to have abdicated his speakership post after the 1998 election because "I took responsibility for the fact that our results weren't as good as they should be."

"I'm very comfortable that my four years as speaker, working with a Democratic president, achieved the kind of conservative values that most Republicans want to have in a president," Gingrich continued.

Fellow candidate Ron Paul took issue with that characterization of how the events unfolded.

Gingrich, Paul said, left the speakership not "to punish himself" but because "he didn't have the votes" to get re-elected.

"He didn't not run for Speaker, you know, two years later," Paul said. "He didn't have the votes. That was what the problem was. So this idea that he voluntarily reneged and he was going to punish himself because we didn't do well in the election, that's just not the way it was."

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