Trading accusations of greed, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich challenged each other Monday to return millions made in private business as the race for the GOP presidential nomination turned increasingly acerbic and personal at the start of a three-week sprint to the Iowa caucuses.
Far from Iowa, the two men campaigned miles apart from each other in next-up New Hampshire, where Romney has long dominated in polls but where Gingrich is aggressively working to make inroads.
Romney called on Gingrich to return the estimated $1.6 million he received for providing strategic advice to Freddie Mac, the quasi-government agency that guarantees home mortgages. Gingrich has said he acted as a historian, not a lobbyist.
"That would make him the highest paid historian in history," Romney told Fox News Channel during an interview from the Chez Vachon diner, a regular New Hampshire stop for presidential candidates. He suggested that Gingrich was an ultimate insider who leveraged his position as a former House speaker to line his pockets when he left office. Said Romney: "One of the things that I think people recognize in Washington is that people go there to serve the people and then they stay there to serve themselves."
Gingrich, campaigning in nearby Londonderry, countered quickly, saying that Romney should give back the millions he made working at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm that sometimes laid people off as part of its efforts to make businesses more efficient.
"If Governor Romney would give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over the years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him," Gingrich said. "But I bet you $10 _ not $10,000 _ that he won't take the offer." That was a dig at Romney's offer of a $10,000 wager with Rick Perry at Saturday night's debate.
Unbowed, Romney chided Gingrich anew, saying: "There's a big difference between working in the private economy and working on K Street, and working as a lobbyist and working as a legislator, and working to connect businesses with government." Romney's campaign also pressed the notion of Gingrich as a Washington insider, with news releases labeling him an "unreliable leader" and pictured with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Romney's stepped-up his criticism of Gingrich came two days after the new front-runner in the GOP nomination fight held his own during a nationally televised debate, turning aside attacks from Romney and other rivals. In recent weeks, Gingrich has risen to the top of polls nationally and in early voting states. He's even started to eat into Romney's lead in New Hampshire, a must-win state for the former Massachusetts governor.
Time is running short for Romney to curb Gingrich's rise, with the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, and the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary coming early next month.
Romney has been promising a more aggressive campaign style.
"We aren't running any negative ads ... but we may," Romney said Monday. "This is, after all, politics. There's no whining in politics."
Romney's allies already are running a negative ad campaign in Iowa assailing Gingrich's record in Washington. Also piling on is Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who has surged into the top three in Iowa polls. Paul on Monday released a Web ad accusing Gingrich of "selling access" in Washington and including a clip of Gingrich calling himself an insider.
Seeking to repair vulnerabilities, Gingrich spent part of the day working to alleviate concerns about some of his personal baggage that could hurt him with social conservatives who make up the base of the GOP primary electorate. He sent a letter to the Family Leader, a key group in Iowa, pledging that he would stay faithful to his wife. Gingrich has been married three times and has acknowledged a previous extramarital affair.
He also left little doubt that he's trying to challenge Romney's lead even in New Hampshire, where Romney has devoted more time and resources than anywhere else.
Gingrich said he's the front-runner in national polls and noted that he's now leading in South Carolina and Florida. He told his audience gathered inside Insight Technology, a Londonderry military contractor: "I'm behind a little bit here, so I need your help to finish off here and win here. It's going to be quite a race."
Speaking to reporters later, Gingrich was asked whether Romney was vulnerable in New Hampshire and responded: "Every voter is going to reserve the right to change their mind up to the last minute, and anybody who thinks any lead is safe anywhere is very foolish."
For much of the year, Romney's campaign has sought to lower expectations that he'll win in Iowa, where he spent millions on his 2008 bid only to come in second. But his campaign also hasn't been shy about its organizational strength in New Hampshire, and a narrow victory or loss here would be a serious blow. His campaign downplayed any potential Gingrich rise here.
"New Hampshire voters do not decide until very late in the process," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "We understood that, which is why we spent several months building a grass-roots organization that is second to none. We are earning every vote."
If Gingrich wins the New Hampshire Republican primary on Jan. 10, he'll do it with an untested New Hampshire political staff. His state director is a tea party activist who has never worked on a campaign at any level. And former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Bob Smith is perhaps Gingrich's most prominent Granite State surrogate, although Smith is now a Florida resident who supported Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
A Gingrich victory would also upset decades of political experience here that suggests local voters demand regular face time in smaller venues with successful candidates. In his sporadic visits to the state this year, he's generally traded the more intimate retail stops for larger venues where he can reach hundreds of voters at a time. Local organizers say Gingrich will refuse to do an event unless the group can promise an audience of at least 200 people.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said there is no such formal requirement and that this was perhaps a case of a well-intentioned campaign volunteer who was trying to boost crowd sizes.