Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went on the attack early in tonight’s NBC News National Journal Republican presidential debate in Tampa leading to a heated exchange where they argued over whether Mr. Gingrich is a former lobbyist.
“There’s a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty and that’s sad. The fact is, I’ve 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,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Moderator Brian Williams brought up the issue of lobbying when he discussed Mr. Gingrich’s contract with Freddie Mac and noted that “the word ‘lobbying’ has been thrown around” when Mr. Romney brought up the Freddie Mac connection on the campaign trail.
“If you read the contract …. it has very clearly I was supposed to do consulting work. The governor did consulting work for years, I’ve never suggested his consulting work was lobbying,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I’ve never done any lobbying. Congressman J.C. Watts, who for seven years was the head of the Freddie Mac watch committee, said flatly he has never been approached by me. The fact is, that Congressman Rick Lazio, who was chairman of the housing subcommittee, said he has never been approached by me. And the only report in the newspaper was the New York Times in July of 2008, which said I told the House Republicans they should vote no, not give Freddie Mac any money because it needed to be reformed.”
Mr. Romney countered by saying Mr. Gingrich claimed he was paid by Freddie Mac as a historian and his salary was simply too large for that.
“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. They weren’t hiring you as an historian and this contract proves that you were not a historian,” Mr. Romney said. “You were a consultant it doesn’t say that you provided historical experience, 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.”
Mr. Romney continued by accusing Mr. Gingrich of speaking out on behalf of Freddie Mac while it contributed to the housing collapse.
“You also spoke publicly in favor of these GSE’s, these government-sponsored entities at a very time when Freddie Mac was getting America in a position where we would have a massive housing collapse,” Mr. Romney said. “You could have spoken out aggressively. You could have spoken out a way to say these guys are wrong, this needs to end, but instead, you were being paid by them, you were making over a million dollars at the same time people in Florida were being hurt by millions of dollars.”
Mr. Gingrich argued that the money he received from Freddie Mac went to his company rather than an individual salary. He also characterized himself as a historian who offered “strategic advice” rather than a consultant.
“We had a company, the company had three offices, the company was being paid. My share annually was about $35,000 a year,” Mr. Gingrich said. ”And the fact is I offered strategic advice largely based on my knowledge of history, including the history of Washington.”
Mr. Gingrich challenged Mr. Romney by invoking his controversial tenure with Bain Capital and saying he should understand the difference between individual salaries and company revenues “as a businessman.”
“Mitt, what’s the gross revenue of Bain in the years you were associated with it?” Mr. Gingrich asked.
“Very substantial, but I think it’s irrelevant compared to the fact you were working for Freddie Mac,” Mr. Romney answered. “We didn’t do any work with the government, I didn’t have an office in K Street. I wasn’t a lobbyist, I’ve never worked in Washington. You were working there. We have Congressman who also says that you came and lobbied them.”
“I didn’t lobby them. That’s not true,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Romney quickly pivoted to accusing Mr. Gingrich of lobbying on behalf of Medicare while taking money from health companies.
“You have congressmen who say that you came and lobbied them with regards to Medicare Part D at the same time your center was taking in contributions …”
Mr. Gingrich cut him off.
“You just jumped a long way over here friend,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Let me be very clear, because I understand your technique, which you used on McCain, you used on Huckabee, you’ve used consistently O.K.? It’s unfortunate and it’s not going to work very well because the American people see through it. I have always publicly favored a stronger Medicare program.”
While Mr. Gingrich’s past work might have been just outside the legal definition of lobbying, he definitely did help sway votes in favor of companies with which he did business. In fact, last December POLITICO pointed out Mr. Gingrich’s work on behalf of one business he worked with may have been a violation of Georgia lobbying laws. Either way, Medicare is an odd choice for an attack against Mr. Gingrich in Florida. According to the Miami Herald, Republicans in Florida oppose Medicare cuts by wide margins.
Mr. Gingrich characterized himself as a proud, public supporter of Medicare, not a lobbyist.
“I am proud of the fact that I publicly, openly advocated Medicare Part D. It has saved lives,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I’m going to say this flatly because you’ve been walking around this state saying things that are untrue. It is not correct to describe public citizenship, having public advocacy as lobbying.”
Mr. Romney argued Mr. Gingrich was splitting hairs.
“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 then you then meet with Republican Congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you like, I call it influence peddling,” Mr. Romney said.
Mr. Williams put an end to the dispute by cutting to a commercial break and reminding Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Romney that there are still two other men in the race for the Republican nomination.
“Gentlemen, we’ve let this go because of the state of the race,” Mr. Williams said. “We have to go to a break. We’ll come back. … We’ll welcome in the other two gentlemen to this conversation.”