Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich clashed repeatedly in heated, personal terms Monday night in a crackling campaign debate, the former Massachusetts governor tagging his rival as an "influence peddler" in Washington, only to be accused in turn of spreading falsehoods over many years in politics.
"You've been walking around the state saying things that are untrue," Gingrich said to his rival in a two-hour debate marked by interruptions and finger pointing.
The debate marked the first encounter among the four remaining GOP contenders -- former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul shared the stage -- since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in an upset last weekend, a double-digit victory that reset the race to pick a rival to challenge President Obama this fall.
Romney was the aggressor from the opening moments Monday night, saying Gingrich had "resigned in disgrace" from Congress after four years as speaker and then spent the next 15 years "working as an influence peddler" in Washington.
In particular, he referred to the contract Gingrich's consulting firm had with Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage giant that he said "did a lot of bad for a lot of people, and you were working there."
Romney also said Gingrich had lobbied lawmakers to approve legislation creating a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare.
"I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying," Gingrich said emphatically, adding that his firm had hired an expert to explain to employees "the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist."
Romney counterpunched quickly, referring to what he said was more than $1 million that Gingrich's consulting firm received from Freddie Mac.
And when Gingrich sought to turn the tables by inquiring about the private equity firm that Romney founded, the former Massachusetts governor replied: "We didn't do any work with the government. I wasn't a lobbyist."
As for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, Gingrich said that while he never lobbied lawmakers, as Romney charged, he was proud of having supported it. "It has saved lives. It's run on a free enterprise model," he said.
At times, the other two contenders on stage were reduced to supporting roles.
Asked if he could envision a path to the nomination for himself, Santorum said the race has so far been defined by its unpredictability. He conceded he had been defeated for re-election in 2006 in Pennsylvania but said the party lost the governorship by an even bigger margin than his own defeat.
"There's one thing worse than losing an election and that's not standing for the principles that you hold," he said.
Paul sidestepped when moderator Brian Williams of NBC asked if he would run as a third-party candidate in the fall if he doesn't win the nomination. "I have no intention," he said, but he didn't slam the door.
The latest polls show Gingrich and Romney leading in the Florida primary.
Romney began airing a harshly critical new campaign ad and said the former House speaker had engaged in "potentially wrongful activity" with the consulting work he did after leaving Congress.
Gingrich retorted that Romney was a candidate who was campaigning on openness yet "has released none of his business records."
He followed up two hours before the debate by arranging the release of a contract his former consulting firm had with the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. for a retainer of $25,000 per month in 2006, or a total for the year of $300,000. The agreement called for "consulting and related services." It makes no mention of lobbying.
While continuing to hammer Gingrich for his consulting work for Freddie Mac, the Romney campaign sought to deflect questions about the former Massachusetts governor's investments. They include a mutual fund worth up to $500,000 that includes assets from both Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae among other government income, and separate investments in each of the lenders in Romney's individual retirement account, each worth between $100,000 and $250,000.
The tax returns Romney planned to release today could provide new details about his investments and his annual take as founder of the Bain Capital private equity firm.
The debates have been taking on an increasingly important role in the GOP race,
At a CNN debate last Thursday in Charleston, moderator John King asked Gingrich to comment on an interview his former wife had given to ABC News alleging that he had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich let loose, channeling conservative rage at the "elite media."
"I think the destructive, vicious negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. I'm appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that," Gingrich snarled. The audience roared its approval.