Romney Previews His Florida Debate Attacks on Rival Gingrich

Mitt Romney attacked Newt Gingrich less than a minute into a news conference in Florida today, a sign of the more combative posture the former Massachusetts governor is taking against the rival best positioned to block his path to the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney said Gingrich, the former U.S. House speaker, has a “highly erratic” record.

“He’s gone from pillar to post, almost like a pinball machine, from item to item in a way which is highly erratic and does not suggest a stable, thoughtful course, which is normally associated with leadership,” Romney told reporters in Tampa.

Speaking ahead of tonight’s Republican candidate debate, Romney also said Gingrich is ripe for “an October surprise,” a reference to learning something unknown about a candidate shortly before November’s general election.

Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas also are set to participate in the 9 p.m. debate.

Romney is seeking to regain his footing after Gingrich’s 12-point win over him in South Carolina’s Jan. 21 primary. Gingrich’s victory set up a costly and combative campaign in Florida as Republicans confront the possibility of a prolonged fight for the nomination.

‘You Get Desperate’

Gingrich described Romney as “desperate” at his own Tampa event later in the day, his first in the state since winning South Carolina.

“If you’ve been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate,” he said in remarks outside a non-denominational church. “When you get desperate, you say almost anything. And I think at tonight’s debate, he will probably stretch the barrier almost anywhere.”

Gingrich said he is practicing one of former President Ronald Reagan’s famous debate lines for the faceoff.

“I’ve been memorizing old phrases like ‘There you go again,’” Gingrich said, calling Romney’s attacks non-factual.

“This is such baloney,” Gingrich said. “It used to be pious baloney. Now it’s just desperate baloney.”

Knocking Romney’s financial strength, Gingrich said “people power will beat money power” in Florida’s Jan. 31 primary. “I had a pretty good Saturday in South Carolina,” he said “We hope to have a pretty good Tuesday right here in Florida.”

Housing Slump Stories

Romney spoke this morning after meeting with eight people from the Tampa area who have been affected by the slump in the housing market.

“I wish Speaker Gingrich were here this morning to have listened to those stories,” he said. “He said in a debate, actually, that the people who profited from the failed model of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae ought to give back their money. Well, the speaker made $1.7 million in his enterprises from providing services to Freddie Mac. He ought to give it back. And we also ought to be able to see what it is he told them.”

Gingrich did consulting work for the government-backed mortgage company Freddie Mac after leaving Congress. Romney said Gingrich should have seen the housing crisis coming and provided an alert.

“I didn’t hear him making those warnings to the nation,” Romney said. “He should have. If he was working inside this industry, providing counsel to them, he should have provided that advice to them and had communicated that to the nation.”

New TV Ad

Romney’s campaign released a new television ad in Florida today criticizing Gingrich, including his work for Freddie Mac.

“While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in,” the ad says. “Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis.”

Romney said he will draw greater distinctions between himself and Gingrich before the Florida primary.

“The speaker was very animated about my releasing tax records. I am,” Romney said, referring to his decision to disclose his return tomorrow. “I think it’s an appropriate observation that people should know if there’s going to be an October surprise. And in the case of the speaker, he’s got some records which could represent an October surprise. We could see an October surprise a day from Newt Gingrich.”

Private-Equity Past

Romney easily won the New Hampshire primary on Jan. 10 and finished a close second in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses. Leading up to the South Carolina vote, his rivals’ assault on his record as a private-equity executive sidetracked his effort to quickly lock up the nomination.

Although he has lost two of the first three contests in the Republican race, Romney entered Florida with advantages. His campaign and its allies have been airing television ads in the state attacking rivals for almost a month. With early voting already under way, Romney organizers are courting supporters and encouraging them to cast ballots before primary day. About 200,000 people have already voted.

Romney today repeated his call for Gingrich to release additional records from a 1997 ethics investigation when Gingrich was speaker, as well as records on work that Romney said should be considered lobbying.

“Let’s see who his clients were,” Romney said. “At the time he was lobbying Republican congressmen” for a federal prescription drug program, “was he working, or were his entities working with any health-care companies that could have benefited from that? That could represent not just evidence of lobbying, but potentially wrongful activity of some kind.”

Asked whether he was suggesting that Gingrich had engaged in criminal activity, Romney said no.

Lobbyist Charge

“We just need to understand what his activity has been over the last 15 years and make sure that it’s conformed with all the regulations that might exist,” he said.

Romney argued that Gingrich was a lobbyist, even though the former speaker has denied that label.

“Saying that Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist is just a matter of fact,” Romney said. “He indicates that he doesn’t fall within the narrow definition of lobbyist that he might have in mind, but if you’re working for a company and getting paid for a company through one of your many entities, and then you are speaking with congressmen in a way that would help that company, that’s lobbying. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.”

Tax-Release Timing

Romney said he planned to release his tax records “sometime in the morning” tomorrow. He said the timing had nothing to do with President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address, scheduled tomorrow night.

“The trustee of my trust that invests our family funds is available that day,” he said. “It was to accommodate his schedule.”

Gingrich released his 2010 returns on Jan. 19, becoming the first of the four remaining Republican contenders to do so. The returns showed he earned $3.1 million in 2010 and paid an effective federal tax rate of about 32 percent, about double the 15 percent rate Romney said he paid.

On housing, so far the Republican presidential candidates haven’t said much about what they’d do to help the market. Democrats pounced on Romney in October when he told a newspaper in Nevada, the state with the highest foreclosure rate, that the market should be allowed to “run its course and hit the bottom.”

Asked about that remark today, Romney said he still believes the housing sector must find its own equilibrium.

“The banks ought to show greater flexibility in being able to renegotiate with people who have circumstances that would justify that renegotiation,” he said. “The banks seem to be paralyzed.”

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