Dec. 13 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney accused each other of getting rich off the misfortunes of others yesterday as the two vied for the upper hand in an increasingly contentious Republican presidential campaign.
Stumping in New Hampshire where they’re competing for votes in a Jan. 10 primary, the candidates met voters in schools, pharmacies, diners and their workplaces. Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, pressed to halt Gingrich’s momentum while the former U.S. House speaker sought to capitalize on his surge in polls three weeks before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses start the nomination voting.
Even as each pledged to keep the tenor of the contest civil, Romney charged that Gingrich had sold his influence to Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage company based in Washington. Gingrich fired back by saying Romney, co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity fund Bain Capital LLC, made his fortune destroying jobs.
“If Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain, then I would be happy to at least listen to him,” Gingrich said in Londonderry.
He was responding to Romney’s call in a Fox News interview for Gingrich to relinquish some $1.6 million in consulting fees he pocketed from Freddie Mac, which Republicans routinely attack as a major culprit in the U.S. home mortgage financial crisis.
“If he was there because of his political connections and then if Freddie Mac fails, I think a fair question is asked: Why did he profit as Freddie Mac failed?” Romney told reporters at the Madison Lumber Mill in Madison.
Addressing lumber workers during his stop, Romney also criticized Gingrich for earlier this year describing the proposal by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to replace Medicare with subsidies for the elderly -- a plan seen as a cornerstone of the Republican fiscal agenda in Congress -- as “right-wing social engineering.”
“Speaker Gingrich was exactly wrong on that,” Romney said, standing amid lumber-cutting machines and piles of wood scraps. “Someone said he might hit the ground running, but not in the same direction I would go.”
In the Fox interview, Romney mockingly rejected Gingrich’s contention that he never lobbied for Freddie Mac and that his work there was in his capacity as an historian.
‘Highest Paid Historian’
“That would make him the highest paid historian in history,” said Romney in the interview from the Chez Vachon diner in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city.
Romney told reporters more attacks could be coming soon, saying his campaign may begin airing negative advertisements.
“This is, after all, politics,” he said. “There’s no whining in politics. You get in a political process and you fight hard.”
The two sharpened their attacks as polling showed Gingrich leading Romney in two states with primaries shortly after the New Hampshire vote. An NBC News/Marist poll released yesterday gave Gingrich a 19-percentage-point lead over Romney in South Carolina and a 15-point advantage in Florida among likely Republican primary voters, including those who are undecided yet leaning toward a candidate. Romney leads in polls in New Hampshire.
“I’m behind a little bit here so I need your help,” Gingrich said as he campaigned in Londonderry. Later, he greeted voters in a pharmacy in Hollis and told them: “Love to have your help on Jan. 10.”
Even as Gingrich returned Romney’s criticism on the money issue, he was billing himself to New Hampshire voters as the candidate taking the higher road. Noting his rise in the race, Gingrich told a town hall at Insight Technology in Londonderry that the campaign had entered a phase showing “the power of positive ideas versus the power of negative advertising.”
“I’m the front-runner, so everybody is going to pile on, and they’re going to try to knock me down,” Gingrich said, adding that he was “somebody who is determined to be positive.”
Gingrich also told voters at a town hall in Windham that he would be releasing a letter today to his campaign staff and surrogates directing them not to engage in attacks against his opponents, as well as asking his supporters to withhold contributions from any political action committee that did so. He called on Romney to make a similar pledge.
“As I have become more of a frontrunner, the campaign has begun for the first time to really degenerate in terms of some of the ads,” Gingrich said.
What Voters Want
Romney also said he would refrain from saying “outrageous things that can be used to hang” his opponents in the Republican race. In an interview with Politico, Romney said the party’s voters “want someone who is willing to be a responsible leader, that brings America together as opposed to dividing America.”
Romney wasn’t the only candidate launching broadsides against Gingrich. In Iowa, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania called Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac “not consistent with the conservative values that we have.”
“He was someone promoting their values and promoting their cause,” he told reporters after meeting with employees at the Principal Financial Group in Des Moines.
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas released an ad calling Gingrich a “career politician” who got rich “selling access.” The ad features news clips highlighting Gingrich’s ethics troubles as speaker in the late 1990s and his work for Freddie Mac.
A Romney adviser used Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac, which was taken into government conservatorship in 2008 after its stake in subprime loans pushed it to the brink of collapse, to question the depth of the former Georgia congressman’s economic experience.
“Newt Gingrich comes from the world where politicians are paid millions after they retire to influence their friends in Washington,” said Tom Stemberg, a founder of office supply company Staples Inc. who once persuaded Romney to help finance the expansion of the stores. “After 30 years as a Washington insider, Newt Gingrich has no clue how the real world economy works.”
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