Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns in Ormond Beach,… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Ormond Beach, Fla. —
Mitt Romney opened an aggressive new phase of the Republican presidential campaign as he cruised into Florida on Sunday night — casting Newt Gingrich as an unethical politician whose temperament and unreliability led to his ouster as speaker of the House in the 1990s.
After a week in which he conceded his Iowa win to Rick Santorum after a recount and lost to Gingrich by double digits in South Carolina, Romney acknowledged that the Republican contest had become a three-man race. But he took a much tougher tone toward Gingrich – directly raising the ethics investigation that Gingrich faced in the 1990s and demanding that Gingrich provide an accounting for the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“We’re not choosing a talk show host," Romney said, alluding to his rival’s strong debate performances that helped shift momentum in his favor in South Carolina. "We’re choosing the person who should be leader of the free world.”
He went on to list what he described as the qualities of a leader: integrity, sobriety, judgment, thoughtfulness, reliability and high ethical standards. “You’re going to have to look at that as Floridians and decide which of the people running for president on our side of the aisle includes the qualities of leadership.”
After touting his own experience in the private sector, turning around the 2002 Olympic Games and governing the state of Massachusetts, Romney pivoted to Gingrich.
"At the end of four years as speaker of the House, it was proven that he was a failed leader,” Romney said. “He had to resign in disgrace. I don’t know whether you knew that.… His fellow Republicans – 88% of his Republicans – voted to reprimand Speaker Gingrich. He has not had a record of successful leadership.”
Romney repeated his call for Gingrich to release all documents that he submitted to the House Ethics Committee during its investigation into his fundraising activities in the 1990s. As a result of the investigation, House members from both parties sanctioned Gingrich and he was forced to pay a $300,000 fine.
In Sunday morning interviews, Gingrich shrugged off the issue – arguing that all relevant documents were available for public consumption and that Romney was merely trying to deflect calls for him to release his tax returns (which he plans to do Tuesday).
But Romney sought to tie the 1990s ethics investigation to Gingrich's recent work as an advisor to mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. “He talks about great, bold movements and ideas — well what’s he been doing for 15 years? He’s been working as a lobbyist … and selling influence around Washington.”
Gingrich has insisted that he never worked as a lobbyist. But to cheers in Ormond Beach, Romney demanded a public review of Gingrich’s “work product” as an advisor to Freddie Mac. “Because Freddie Mac figures in very prominently to the fact that people in Florida have seen home values go down. It’s time to turn that around.”
At one point during his outdoor rally at a building supply company, Romney was interrupted by protesters chanting, “We are the people.” He quickly dismissed them.
“No, actually, these are the people,” Romney shouted back. “These are the people; you’re the interrupters. We believe in the Constitution. We believe in the right to speech. And you believe in interrupting. Take a hike.”
Romney’s supporters drowned them out by chanting “U-S-A.”
Elizabeth Myers, in an email, said she was one of the protesters at the rally. She said the demonstrators started the chant "U-S-A," which the rest of the crowd ultimately joined.
The chant went: "Mr. One Percent. Corporations are not people. We are the people. We are America. We are the 99%. U-S-A."
Though it was unclear to most of the crowd who the protesters were representing, Romney suggested they were attacking “free enterprise.”
“I love these guys, by the way, who don’t like America and our free-enterprise system, and they have something else in mind,” he said. “Take a look at Cuba; take a look at North Korea; take a look at the former Soviet Union. Our system works. What they’re fighting for does not work. I believe in America.”