By Sam Youngman
DES MOINES (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich fought back on Saturday against attacks over the more than $1.6 million in payments he received from mortgage giant Freddie Mac, insisting the money went to overhead for his firm and not to his wallet.
On a teleconference with Iowans, Gingrich said he worked with Freddie Mac to help poor people get homes, and he wanted to "set the record straight."
The payment received over a six-year period was spent mostly on overhead, the former House of Representatives speaker said.
Gingrich's ties to the company have come under increased scrutiny in recent days after six former top executives at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were sued by U.S. regulators on charges of misleading investors about the companies' exposure to risky home loans in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis.
Gingrich's Republican opponents have filled the television airwaves of Iowa and New Hampshire, the states with the first two nominating contests, with ads criticizing him for influence peddling and accepting money from a mortgage house that contributed to the deep 2008-2009 recession.
Gingrich had surged into the lead in some polls in the Republican battle to find a challenger to President Barack Obama, overtaking Mitt Romney, but polls this week showed support for Gingrich may already be softening.
A Rasmussen poll showed Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has a slight lead over Gingrich in Iowa. Two other polls show Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican congressman, moving into second place behind Gingrich in Iowa and gunning for an upset that would almost certainly help Romney by stopping Gingrich's rise.
"I just want to set the record straight," Gingrich said. "We had a company. The company had three different offices. We were paid annually for six years, so the numbers you see are six years of work. Most of that money went to pay for overhead, for staff, for other things that didn't go directly to me."
On Saturday, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial blasting Gingrich for hypocrisy in using big government programs "for his own political ends."
"Mr. Gingrich would help his candidacy if he stopped defending his Freddie payday, admitted his mistake, and promised to atone as president by shrinking Fannie and Freddie and ultimately putting them out of business," the editorial said.
On a phone call designed to refute negative attacks and enlist precinct captains for Iowa's January 3 caucuses, Gingrich insisted that he "did not in any way work in influence, per se."
"That's an area where people have said things that are wildly inaccurate," Gingrich said.
Gingrich said he began advising Freddie Mac after he had been working for Habitat for Humanity, and he wanted to help poor people find ways to buy a home.
The former speaker also used the call to reject a charge from rival Rick Santorum who said in Iowa last week that Gingrich was not as solid on anti-abortion issues as other conservatives.
Gingrich said he has a concrete voting record on the issue, and he only broke with the group Right to Life once, when the group had a "theory" that the original welfare reform act would lead to more working women having more abortions.
"Nobody else agreed with them," Gingrich said.
He also said that any suggestion that he was ever in favor of partial birth abortion "is just a falsehood."
"It's clearly murder when you take a baby and you do that barbaric thing," Gingrich said.
(Reporting By Sam Youngman; editing by Philip Barbara)