Mitt Romney, second from left, and Newt Gingrich, second from right, spar… (Charles Krupa / Associated…)
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. —
Tensions between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney finally spilled onto the debate stage Sunday morning when David Gregory gave Gingrich the opportunity to call Romney a liar. Perhaps without meaning to, Gingrich ended up catching Romney in a lie moments later.
The history, for those just tuning in: In campaigning for the Iowa caucuses, Gingrich had bitterly complained that Romney should have interceded with a super PAC run by former Romney staffers and urged it to stop running vicious ads against the former House speaker. Romney often replied that he had no control over the super PAC, and that in fact, it was illegal for him to coordinate with the group. To which Gingrich often said: Baloney, there is nothing to prevent Romney from publicly disavowing the group, Restore Our Future. To which Romney often replied: This is the big leagues. If you can’t stand the heat, etc.
Sunday morning on the debate stage in Concord, N.H., Gregory ratcheted up the disagreement. He noted that a former Gingrich campaign spokesman had launched a pro-Gingrich super PAC and was preparing to launch an attack against Romney, calling him a “predator” for killing jobs when he led Bain Capital, the private equity firm that enriched him before he entered politics.
“You would have to say that Bain at times engaged in behavior where they looted a company leaving behind 1,700 people,” said Gingrich.
“You have agreed with the characterization that Gov. Romney is a liar,” said Gregory. “Look at him now, do you stand by that claim?”
“Sure,” replied Gingrich, not missing a beat.
In previous debates, the “Not Romney” candidates, when offered a chance to slam the front-runner, have often backpedalled. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty provided perhaps the best example of that kind of wimping out last summer. Pawlenty, who is now supporting Romney, had attacked him for instituting universal healthcare in Massachusetts, calling it “Obamneycare.” But when asked to say it to Romney’s face on the debate stage, Pawlenty refused to own the term.
Here, two days before the New Hampshire primary, no one was pulling a Pawlenty.
However, Gingrich handed Romney an opening to repeat charges against him that were hammered home in the negative ads.
“Governor,” Gingrich told Romney, “I wish you would calmly and clearly state that it is your former staff running the PAC, it is your millionaire friends giving to the PAC, and you know some of the ads are untrue. Just say that straightforward.”
Romney, unfazed: “Of course it’s former people of mine. Of course it’s people who support me. They wouldn’t be putting money into a PAC that supports me if they weren’t people who support me,” he said.
Then, Romney told what can only be described as a bald-faced untruth.
“And as regards to their ads,” he said, “I haven’t seen 'em.”
Yet, seconds later, he added, “But let me tell you this, the ad I saw [emphasis ours] said you were forced out of the speakership. That was correct. It said that you sat down with Nancy Pelosi and argued for a climate change bill. That was correct. It said that you called Paul Ryan’s plan to provide Medicare reform a right wing social engineering plan. It said that as part of an ethics investigation, that you had to reimburse some $300,000 dollars …. ”
Gingrich did not appear to catch the inconsistency as Romney then segued into a reprimand, accusing Gingrich of being “a little over the top.”
Gingrich was incredulous: “You think my rhetoric was over the top, but your ads were totally reasonable?”
Romney repeated his by-now familiar defense: “I didn’t write the ads.”
The Romney campaign said later Sunday that the candidate had meant that he had not seen all the super PAC ads that are currently running.
"There are countless ads airing in all of the states. Gov. Romney has not seen all of the ads, but he discussed one in particular that he had seen," said spokeswoman Andrea Saul.