Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 | 10:11 p.m.
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney may be down in the polls, but he’s certainly not going out without a fight: a conviction he made clear at Monday night’s debate in Tampa, Fla.
Romney took aim at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who flipped what used to be a wide lead for Romney in Florida after winning an upset in South Carolina Saturday night, painting a picture of Gingrich as an “influence peddler” in Washington with rough strokes, and hammering home the words “Freddie Mac” and the number $1.6 million — that being how much Gingrich made in years of consulting fees for the home-lending giant at the heart of the subprime mortgage crisis.
Romney even engaged the former speaker in some of that no-moderator, Lincoln-Douglas-style debating Gingrich keeps telling voters will be his ace in a general contest against President Barack Obama — and outdid him.
“If you read the contract, it says clearly I was supposed to do consulting work ... There’s no place in the contract that provides for lobbying, I’ve never done any lobbying,” Gingrich retorted during the debate to Romney’s allegations, trying to turn the topic toward Romney’s tenure at Bain, and toward his efforts advocating for Medicare Part D.
But Romney would not let go.
“You were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac, not the CEO, not public affairs — the chief lobbying ... you could have spoken out aggressive and said these guys are wrong, this needs to end but at the same time, you were being paid by them, making over a million dollars when the people of Florida were losing,” Romney shot back. “You can call it whatever you like, I call it influence peddling.”
The debate was very much a showcase between Romney and Gingrich, the two de facto front-runners in this race, each of whom needs to win the delegate-rich prize of Florida Jan. 31 to re-establish front-runner status — something that will then have to be solidified in Nevada if it’s to carry the leader through a stretch of Western state primaries in February and the all-important Super Tuesday states of early March.
But it was also a showcase for issues that matter to Nevada, and may help Silver State voters pick a candidate.
Moderators held up Florida — with its double-digit unemployment, majority of underwater homeowners, and immigration challenges — as a state that needs real answers to real issues.
As does Nevada, on the same issues, moreso. (Though we probably won’t get another debate all our own.)
Monday’s was one of the few debates in which all remaining candidates were pressed to explain what they thought the government should do about the foreclosure crisis, and if the government should be helping those whose home loans were underwater.
“Help them? Of course we help them,” Romney began his answer.
Romney told the Las Vegas Review-Journal last October that he believed the housing market should be allowed to “hit bottom.” The rest of his answer was a more florid presentation of the same point.
“You have to get government out of the mess. To help people, see if they can’t get more flexibility from their banks,” he said, mentioning the idea of replacing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. “You gotta get the economy going again with people having jobs ... you’re not going to get housing recovered unless you get jobs created again.”
“The fact is, Dodd-Frank has led the biggest banks to get bigger ... it has an anti-housing bias and it is crippling small-business borrowing,” Gingrich said. “If they would repeal it tomorrow morning, you would have a better housing market the next day.”
Romney and Gingrich differed, it was revealed upon further questioning however, about how much they trusted banks to fix the problem.
“Of course (the market) is overregulated,” Gingrich told NBC moderator Brian Williams. “When you put that much power in the Treasury under (Sec. Timothy) Geithner, it’s a recipe for corruption.”
“It was poorly regulated,” Romney corrected Gingrich when it was his turn. “Markets have to have regulation to work. You can’t just have everyone open up a bank in their garage ... but you need to have regulations that are up to date ... (Dodd-Frank) has gotta be replaced.”
They discussed oil and nuclear issues as a matter of foreign policy, not energy policy, vis-a-vis Iran and the Strait of Hormuz, with libertarian Ron Paul holding a non-interventionist line against a growing discussion of military and bombardment options from other candidates.
The candidates also discussed how to deal with foreigners coming to the U.S., beginning with the question of whether English ought to be the official language.
“Why is it OK for you to court voters in Spanish but not OK for the government to serve them in Spanish?” National Journal moderator Beth Reinhard.
Gingrich defended his “willingness to go to people on their terms in their culture” in making Spanish-language ads for his campaign, but downplayed the special significance of either Spanish-language voters by likening the campaigning to mingling with Greeks on Greek Independence Day or the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.
All agreed that having English as a national language was important — even Paul, though he argued that it was not the federal government’s place to tell states what they could or could not choose to also provide in Spanish.
“Our system really gives them ways to be more generous,” he said.
“Having them learn English is also a great thing for them and for their kids,” Romney said.
Romney and Gingrich also both pledged themselves to be half-supporters of the DREAM Act — but only the military half.
“I would work to get a signable version, which would be the military component,” Gingrich said.
“I would sign the DREAM Act if it were focused on military service,” Romney chimed in. He added later that he planned to handle other cases of illegal immigration through “self-deportation.”
But while the debate was mostly about Romney and Gingrich vying for first place, it was Santorum that struck the final and most convincing blow of the night. The Iowa victor-turned-backbencher got his moment on the last question, which Williams presented to each of the candidates: “What did you do to promote a conservative agenda?”
Romney said he’d raised a family, worked in the private sector, and been a successful Republican governor in a liberal-leaning state. Gingrich recounted his GOPAC legacy, and his life’s political work building the first Republican majority in decades back in the 1990s.
Santorum directed his answer that followed toward both of them.
“They rejected conservatism when it was hard to stand. It’s going to be hard to stand, there’s going to be a mountain of problems, it’s going to be tough,” he said, then declaratively telling the audience: “There is no difference between President Obama and these two gentlemen.”
So much for a decisive endorsement that settles this anytime soon.
Which means Nevada, get ready to inherit the showdown soon.