Is it possible that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have carried their bickering and political pettiness to the point that also-rans Rick Santorum and Ron Paul suddenly seem like a breath of fresh air and the epitome of rational thought? That point may have been reached relatively early in last night’s crucial Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, the last prime time nationally televised debate before Tuesday’s crucial Florida primary.
It came as Gingrich and Romney were reprising their rhetorical knife fight over whether Gingrich and his associates shamelessly lined their pockets with $1.6 million of consulting fees from financially troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac after he stepped down as House speaker in 1999. And whether Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is advocating “anti-immigrant” policies that would lead to the rounding up and deportation of elderly people who have lived in this country illegally for decades.
When CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich whether he stood by one of his campaign ads calling Romney “anti-immigrant” for his tough stands on immigration policy and opposition to legislation allowing a pathway to permanent residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants, Romney lashed back: “That is repugnant” and “the kind of over-the-top rhetoric” that has sullied the campaign. “I’m not anti-immigrant,” he said. “My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Paul, the libertarian champion who favors eliminating the Federal Reserve, returning to the gold standard, and bringing most U.S. troops home from overseas, and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator and abortion, foe finally had enough after standing around on stage at the University of North Florida like bit players.
“That subject doesn’t interest me at all,” Paul declared when asked for his views on the Gingrich-Romney dustups. And Santorum, who may have stolen the show last night with his trenchant comments on immigration reform, taxes, the deficit and foreign policy, said the two leading candidates were distracting from more important issues.
“Can we stipulate that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed … to go out and advise companies, and that's not the worst thing in the world, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he's going out and working hard,” Santorum said, as the audience cheered.
Gingrich and Romney finally agreed to call a truce of sorts, at least for the rest of the evening. “Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?” Gingrich asked plaintively.
Romney said sure, but not before he demonstrated for the second night this week that that he had greatly sharpened his debate skills, with the help of a new coach, Brett O’Donnell, who served as a top strategist to Rep. Michele Bachmann before she dropped out of the race.
“When I’m shot at, I’ll return fire,” Romney said immediately after last night’s two-hour debate. “I’m no shrinking violet.”
Gingrich came off a stunning victory over Romney and the others last Saturday in South Carolina with Big Mo and a puffed up ego, as the news media anointed the long time Washington figure the anti-establishment champion who channeled the anger of rank-and-file conservatives and Tea Party activists. But Romney fought back Monday night with a blistering attack on Gingrich, charging that he had been been forced to retire from Congress “in disgrace” and that he made his fortune as a K Street lobbyist and “influence peddler.”
Those attacks appear to be working, as Gingrich has begun to slip behind Romney in the polls after enjoying momentary front-runner status.
Gingrich, 68, had worked himself into a lather earlier yesterday by standing in the Florida heat in his business suit, his adoring wife Callista at his side, and using the word “stupid” at least a dozen times to describe how Romney views voters. Gingrich said the former governor’s negative ads about Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac were dishonest and hypocritical — and represent a desperate attempt by the Republican establishment to block Gingrich’s campaign. You could almost see the steam rising from his large, white-thatched head.
Gingrich also said the Republicans can’t beat President Obama this fall “with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs while it forecloses on Florida, and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while he tries to think the rest of us are too stupid to put the dots together to understand what this is all about.” He was referring, of course, to Romney and some of the contents of his 2010 and 2011 tax returns that were released on Tuesday.
Last night, though, Gingrich seemed reluctant to repeat those allegations in a presidential debate until goaded on by Wolf Blitzer, the CNN moderator, and Romney himself who said “Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?”
“OK,” Gingrich said. “Given that standard, Mitt, I did say I thought it was a little unusual, and I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account,” he said. “I'd be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.”
Romney said that his investments are in a blind trust and that full taxes were paid. And he issued his strongest defense yet of his wealth:
“I think it's important for people to make sure that we don't castigate individuals who've been successful, and try by innuendo to suggest there's something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments,” he said.
Romney said he earned his money and made investments that resulted in job creation. And, oh, by the way, Gingrich himself had invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae through a mutual fund, Romney cheerfully pointed out.
“Have you checked your investments? You also have investments in mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” Romney said.
“Right,” Gingrich replied lamely.