Republican presidential candidates share the stage before the NBC News,… (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich immediately locked horns over questions of electability as the Republican presidential candidates gathered in Florida for another debate tonight, one week before the latest test in the 2012 nominating race.
Gingrich, the victor in South Carolina's Republican primary last weekend, gladly responded to the concerns of his party's establishment that he would be a risky choice to face President Obama in the fall, saying the change needed in this country "requires someone who's prepared to be controversial."
"I would suggest that a solid conservative ... who has the courage to stand up to the Washington establishment is exactly the kind of bold tough leader that the American people want," he said at the debate in Tampa, co-sponsored by NBC News, National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times.
Gingrich said that his four years leading the House, even with a Democratic president, produced results conservatives could be proud of.
Romney, suddenly on his heels after a double-digit defeat in South Carolina, seized an opportunity to list aspects from Gingrich's tenure as speaker that he said should disqualify him in the eyes of Republican voters.
"The speaker was given an opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994. And at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace," Romney said, a point he repeated two more times.
When Gingrich first won a seat in Congress, Romney said he had begun his own career in the private sector. As Gingrich left the House to become "an influence peddler," Romney said he was running the Olympic games and beginning "a very successful turnaround" in Massachusetts.
And, as Romney said he was "fighting cap and trade" and supporting Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to overhaul Medicare, Gingrich was "sitting down with Nancy Pelosi on a sofa" and accusing Ryan of "right-wing social engineering."
Gingrich largely dismissed those points in response to Romney's newly aggressive approach, directing viewers to his campaign website in response to what he said were falsehoods.
"He may have been a good financier; he's a terrible historian," Gingrich said.
"I think as a party builder, the 20 years I spent building the House Republican Party stands pretty good as an example of leadership," Gingrich said.
Rick Santorum, seeking to stay in the conversation now dominated by Romney and Gingrich, made his pitch to voters as a true conservative that "presents a very clear contrast with the president of the United States" and will not become an "issue in this race."