Republican presidential candidate former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich… (Scott Olson / Getty Images )
Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul put front-runner Newt Gingrich on defense early into Thursday night's Republican presidential debate, attacking him for, as Bachmann put it, "influence peddling" when he received $1.6 million in consulting fees from mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
The exchange forced Gingrich to do something that's unlikely to endear him to the more conservative of Republican primary voters: He defended government programs and said he advocated for "more regulations" for the government-sponsored mortgage companies.
"There are a lot of government-sponsored enterprises that are awfully important and do an awfully good job," Gingrich said, naming credit unions and programs like Habitat for Humanity.
But despite mounting a defense that acknowledged that Freddie Mac is a quasi-governmental entity, Gingrich insisted that his consulting work was purely private.
"I was a private citizen, engaged in a business like any other business," Gingrich said.
That irritated Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
"He has a different definition of the private sector than I have," Paul said, then went on to argue that government-sponsored enterprises are dangerous.
Gingrich accused Minnesota Congresswoman Bachmann of making "wild accusations" when she said, "We know he cashed paychecks from Freddie Mac; that's the best evidence you could have" that he was lobbying for the mortgage giant.
"I never lobbied under any circumstance," Gingrich said.
Bachmann fired back: "You don't need to be within the technical definition of a lobbyist to still be influence peddling."