Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney launched a multipronged attack Monday on rival Newt Gingrich, accusing the former House speaker of engaging in "potentially wrongful activity" in his consulting work, while Gingrich dismissed Romney's criticism as desperate in the wake of a big loss in South Carolina.
Romney called on Gingrich to release the list of clients he helped after leaving Congress. He offered no proof that Gingrich had engaged in wrongful behavior when, after resigning from the House, he worked with former colleagues to push for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. Gingrich has never been a registered lobbyist.
"Was he working or were his entities working with any health care companies that could've benefited from that? That could represent not just evidence of lobbying but potentially wrongful activity of some kind," Romney told reporters after a campaign appearance.
When asked if he was suggesting that Gingrich had committed a crime, Romney said: "We just need to understand what his activity's been over the last 15 years, and make sure that it's conformed with all the regulations that might exist."
Gingrich said Romney was willing to "say almost anything" because the GOP nomination is beginning to "slip away" from the former Massachusetts governor.
After a campaign event in Tampa, Gingrich didn't take questions and did not directly respond to the former Massachusetts governor's allegations. He did launch a pre-emptive defense, saying earlier Monday in an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" that he never lobbied for Freddie Mac.
"It's not true. He knows it's not true. He's deliberately saying things he knows are false," Gingrich said. "I just think that's what the next week will be like."
Gingrich has acknowledged earning more than $1.6 million Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage company that played a significant role in the housing crisis. He has said he was a consultant and not a registered lobbyist.
Romney's attacks, combined with his campaign's first negative ad and a conference call in which top surrogates criticized Gingrich, showed a newfound aggressiveness for Romney and set the stage for Monday night's presidential debate. Romney lost Saturday's South Carolina primary by 12 percentage points to Gingrich and has adopted a newly aggressive tone in an effort to try to regain the race's momentum.
"While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in," the TV ad says, noting that the former speaker made more than $1.6 million working for Freddie Mac. "Gingrich resigned from Congress in disgrace and then cashed in as a D.C. insider."
Gingrich called Romney's claims "desperate baloney."
"If you've been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate and when you get desperate you say almost anything," he said.
Romney said Gingrich should return the more than $1.6 million he made from the company and accused Gingrich of erratic leadership, saying he was "almost like a pinball machine."
While Romney criticized Gingrich, he acknowledged profiting from investments in Freddie Mac.
His most recent financial disclosure forms show he had a direct investment in Freddie Mac worth between $100,000 and $250,000. He made between $5,000 and $15,000 in interest income on it between February 2010 and February 2011.
Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom noted that, even though the former Massachusetts governor profited from the investment, he did not work for Freddie Mac as Gingrich did.
"Newt Gingrich said anybody who profited from Freddie Mac while defending their failed model ought to give the money back," Fehrnstrom said.
While Romney's allies have been attacking Gingrich in television commercials for weeks, the Romney campaign's new commercial marked the first time it has directly attacked any of his opponents.
Romney answered questions from the media after an event Monday that made clear he intends to focus on housing in a state particularly hard hit by home foreclosures and the struggling economy.
But Romney didn't suggest he intends to change his own prescription for fixing the housing crisis. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal's editorial board last year that the housing market should be allowed to hit bottom.
Still, the attacks set the stage for Monday's debate, a forum in which Gingrich has thrived.
To improve his own performance, Romney was spending much of the day preparing for the two-hour debate with Brett O'Donnell, who advised President George W. Bush and 2008 nominee John McCain.