TAMPA, Fla. — Mitt Romney, struggling to gain momentum in this state's pivotal Republican primary, unleashed a blistering attack Monday on chief rival Newt Gingrich over his ethics, his leadership and his ties to mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The former Massachusetts governor charged Gingrich was an "influence peddler" in Washington who had resigned "in disgrace" as Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Gingrich, Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1998, called Romney's charges "the worst kind of trivial politics."
Monday's nearly two-hour debate at the University of South Florida was the first since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary Saturday in a landslide over Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
Since then Romney has attacked, and turned up the heat Monday.
"The Speaker was given an opportunity to lead our party in 1994 and at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace," Romney charged. Gingrich stepped down in November 1998 after Republicans failed to gain as many seats as hoped, and left Congress in January 1999.
Romney blasted Gingrich for making an ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urging more dialogue on climate change, and for criticizing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's 2011 budget plan as "right wing social engineering."
Gingrich began fighting back gently.
"I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Mr. Romney's misinformation," he said. "I don't want to waste the time on them. I think the American public deserves a discussion about how we will beat Barack Obama."
Romney turned to the Gingrich consulting firm's dealings with the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., the mortgage giant known as Freddie Mac.
"We just learned today his contract with Freddie Mac was provided by the lobbyist at Freddie Mac," Romney charged, not its CEO.
Gingrich Monday released a contract with Freddie Mac showing his firm was paid $25,000 a month as a retainer in 2006, for a total of $300,000. Other contracts were not released; estimates are that Gingrich firms earned an estimated $1.6 million over several years. The firm's director of public policy, which includes lobbying, hired Gingrich.
The Gingrich Group was to provide "consulting and related services as requested by Freddie Mac's director, public policy." No lobbying is mentioned.
"You know there's a point in this process where it's gets unnecessarily personal and nasty and that's sad," Gingrich said, adding, "I think it's pretty clear to say that I have never ever done any lobbying."
Romney persisted, recalling that Gingrich has said he was retained as "a historian" for Freddie Mac. "They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years as historians .This contract proves you were not a historian. You were a consultant.," Romney said.
"The fact is I offered strategic advice, largely based on my knowledge of history," Gingrich replied, including Washington's history.
Gingrich asked whether Bain Capital, the private equity investment firm Romney founded, did government work. Romney noted it did not, and pointed out that Gingrich's firm had advocated the Medicare prescription drug program enacted in 2003.
"You've been walking around this state saying things are untrue," Gingrich said. "What I did on behalf on Medicare I did openly."
Romney struck back: If you're getting paid by health companies that can benefit from health legislation being drafted, and you meet with GOP congressmen and seek their support for, he said: "I call it influence peddling. It is not right."
Romney plans to release his 2010 income tax returns and 2011 estimates Tuesday; they're expected to say he paid at about a 15 percent federal tax rate. He said they'd contain "no surprises."
Gingrich said that under his tax-overhaul plan, "I'm prepared to describe my 15 percent flat tax as the Mitt Romney flat tax. I'd like to bring everybody else down to Mitt's rate."
Romney asked Gingrich what his capital gains rate would be; Gingrich said zero.
"Well, under that plan, I'd have paid no taxes in the last two years," Romney said.
The debate was the first in a state with a sizeable Hispanic population, and Romney and Gingrich, along with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, looked to out-muscle each other toward Cubas Fidel Castro — a critical issue to a potent voting block of reliably Republican Cuban Americans in South Florida.
Romney said that on getting word of Castros death hed first thank heaven Fidel Castro has been returned to his maker.
Gingrich went further, saying that Castro is going to go to the other place. He said hed use every asset available to the United States, including appropriate covert operations to overthrow the regime.
Only Texas Rep. Ron Paul disagreed, saying it was time to scrap the economic embargo against Cuba. Its not 1962 anymore, Paul said.
Santorum, who narrowly won the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus, said he hoped to win by stressing his "track record of being a strong conservative." Paul was asked if he would consider a third party run if he does not get the GOP nomination.
"I have no plans to do that, no intention," he said, adding, "But I haven't been an absolutist."
The debate was the first of two scheduled in Florida this week. The candidates will meet again in Jacksonville Thursday.
MORE FROM McCLATCHY: