Romney, Gingrich Clash During GOP Debate In Tampa

Jan 24, 2012
Originally published on January 24, 2012 9:00 am



This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

GREENE: The latest Republican debate - last night in Florida - was more subdued than when the candidates last took the stage, in South Carolina. But still, it contained plenty of sharp jabs. After it was over, another dramatic turn in the race, with new revelations about Mitt Romney's taxes. We'll explore those numbers in depth, in a few minutes.

MONTAGNE: We begin our coverage with the debate's attacks, most of them launched by Romney against Newt Gingrich, who is ahead in the polls - at least for the moment.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: After a stunning loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney came to Tampa determined to fight his way back.


MITT ROMNEY: In the 1990s, he had to resign in disgrace from his job as speaker. I had the opportunity to go off and run the Olympic Winter Games. In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence-peddler in Washington.

LIASSON: And Romney kept going - unloading a file cabinet full of opposition research on Gingrich. He ridiculed the former speaker's claim that he was hired as a historian by Freddy Mac - the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation. Romney noted that the Freddie Mac contract described lobbying activities without using the word, and had Gingrich reporting to Freddie's chief lobbyist. The barrage prompted the moderator, Brian Williams, to ask Romney what had changed his mind about attack politics.


ROMNEY: I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina. And that was, I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of the attacks, and I'm not going to sit back and get attacked, day in and day out, without returning fire.

LIASSON: Newt Gingrich also took a new approach last night. He didn't lash out at the moderator, or channel the resentment of conservatives toward the establishment elites. But he did push back against Romney's attacks.


NEWT GINGRICH: Let me be very clear - because I understand your technique, which you used on McCain, you used on Huckabee; you've used consistently, OK? It's unfortunate, and it's not going to work very well because the American people see through it.

LIASSON: Gingrich also defended his tenure as speaker, saying he resigned after the 1998 elections because he took responsibility for the Republican losses that year. But his account was disputed by Ron Paul, who served in the House with Gingrich.


RON PAUL: He didn't have the votes. That was what the problem was. So this idea that he voluntarily reneged, and he was going to punish himself because we didn't do well in the election - that's just not the way it was.

LIASSON: As Gingrich and Romney pounded each other in the debate and on the campaign trial yesterday, both were also making what might be called defensive disclosures. Gingrich released his contract with Freddie Mac just hours before the debate. It showed that he made $25,000 a month for, quote, consulting services.

Meanwhile, Romney said he would release, for the first time in his public career, his tax returns. Around midnight, he released 2010 and 2011 tax data - but no other years. They show he made 42 million in the last two years, and paid 6.2 million in federal taxes, an effective rate of less than 15 percent.


ROMNEY: I pay all the taxes that are legally required, and not a dollar more. I don't think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.

LIASSON: Romney was also asked about immigration. In a state with a big bloc of Hispanic voters, he tried to soften his earlier statement that illegal immigrants should all go home before applying for citizenship or for legal residency. That led to still more questions.


ADAM SMITH: So if you don't deport them, how do you send them home?

ROMNEY: Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide that they could do better by going home because they can't find work here - because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And so we're not going to round people up.

LIASSON: The audience laughed at that. But for the most part, they followed the moderator's instructions and were silent. That helped give this debate a subdued tone, in contrast to the two raucous debates in South Carolina that had given Gingrich such a big boost. Gingrich's combative but commanding performance in those debates had helped him pull even, despite Romney's superior resources and organization.

But last night, whether by design or not, Gingrich let Romney dominate. It was just the latest role reversal in a campaign that's had so many twists and turns. Now, Gingrich is acting like the front- runner, which he is - at least for the moment, and Romney is punching up, like an underdog.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.