Mitt Romney has enhanced his image as a front-runner by staying above the fray during a run of Republican debates, but Monday he sharply abandoned that approach to unleash a withering attack on the rival who threatens his claim to the nomination.
He instantly invoked Newt Gingrich's tumultuous tenure as speaker of the House in the 1990s, saying he had to "resign in disgrace." He tried to link Gingrich's work with the mortgage giant Freddie Mac to the foreclosure crisis. He reminded the national TV audience that not long ago Gingrich teamed up with Democrat Nancy Pelosi to call attention to global warming.
"I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina, and that was I had incoming from all directions," Romney said when asked to explain his aggressive transformation. "And I'm not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire."
Gingrich, who overwhelmingly won the South Carolina primary on Saturday and has erased Romney's lead in Florida, tried to do what Romney has done before: rise above it and keep the focus on President Barack Obama.
"I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Gov. Romney's misinformation," he said. "I think the American public deserves a discussion about how to beat Barack Obama."
But as Romney bore down during the debate in a theater on the USF Tampa campus, Gingrich showed flashes of unease. "You've been walking around this state saying things that are not true," he said after a prolonged back and forth with Romney.
Debate moderator Brian Williams of NBC News asked Romney about the tax returns he intends to release today, after long signaling he would not — an issue that hurt him in South Carolina. Any surprises? Williams asked.
"No surprises," Romney said.
Romney defended his wealth — estimated at $250 million — which was created through his work with the private equity firm Bain Capital.
"I was surprised to see people in the Republican Party pick up the weapons of the left and start using them to attack free enterprise," Romney said, a reference to Gingrich who has accused Bain of "looting" companies.
"I didn't have an office on K Street," Romney said, refocusing his attention on Gingrich. "I wasn't a lobbyist."
Gingrich insisted, "I think it's pretty clear to say that I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying."
This was the first of two debates before Florida's Jan. 31 primary, and the candidates were pressed on state-specific issues. Romney was asked to explain how he could say he does not want to round up illegal immigrants but also say they should have to go back to home countries, then apply for citizenship.
"So, if you don't deport them, how do you send them home?" Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam C. Smith asked.
"Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here," Romney replied.
Rick Santorum, who has struggled to stand out as the race focuses on Gingrich and Romney, took a harder approach. "They continually break the law in this country, and I don't think that's something that should be rewarded."
Ron Paul, who often talks about slashing federal aid, demurred when asked if that outlook should apply to the Everglades. "I don't see any reason to go after that," he said.
Paul also split from his counterparts on a question of how to deal with Cuba. "The Cold War is over," he said. "I think it's time to quit this isolation business."
Gingrich said he would work aggressively to overthrow the Raul Castro regime, including using covert operations. "A Gingrich presidency will not tolerate four more years," he said.
Gingrich inadvertently created some news when he was asked about the Dream Act, the legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for some children of illegal immigrants. Gingrich said he would support a limited version targeting those who serve in the military. At that point, Romney, who said he would veto the act, said, "I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service."
The debate ended with a theme that has settled over the race: Who is the most conservative and what it means to be conservative. Romney pressed his family values. Gingrich invoked a string of conservatives he has worked with including Ronald Reagan.
Sensing his opening after being overshadowed during most of the debate, Santorum accused both Gingrich and Romney of previously holding moderate positions on climate change and health care.
"Speaker Gingrich for 20 years supported a federal individual mandate, something that (Florida Attorney General) Pam Bondi is now going to the Supreme Court saying is unconstitutional," Santorum said.
"There is no difference between President Obama and these two gentlemen," he added. "That's why this election in Florida is so critical that we have someone that actually can create a contrast between the president and the conservative point of view," Santorum said.
The hour and a half debate concluded one of the fiercest days of the campaign to date as Romney watched his comfortable lead in Florida — and nationally — evaporate. Two Florida polls showed Gingrich in the lead. And a national Gallup Poll Monday revealed Romney had lost his 23-point lead of a week ago and he and Gingrich are now tied.
Romney savaged Gingrich during a morning housing roundtable in Tampa, invoking his work with Freddie Mac.
"Saying that Newt Gingrich is a lobbyist is just a matter of fact," Romney said. He demanded Freddie Mac records and papers from ethics investigations during Gingrich's congressional years.
"The speaker was very animated about my releasing tax records — I am," Romney said. (Today he will release his 2010 return and a 2011 summary.) "I think it's an appropriate observation that people should know if there's going to be an October surprise." Romney's campaign then announced it was going up on Florida TV with a negative attack on Gingrich, accusing him of "cashing in" on the housing crisis.
Gingrich released his first Florida TV ad Monday, a straightforward spot featuring footage from a debate in South Carolina last week where he defended calling Obama the "food stamp president," which drew sustained applause.
More significantly, a pro-Gingrich "super PAC" received a second $5 million donation from a casino magnate family.
Gingrich held an afternoon rally at the River at Tampa Bay Church east of Tampa that drew several hundred people.
"When you get desperate you say almost anything," he said of Romney. "It used to be pious baloney. Now it's just desperate baloney."
Democrats continue to act as if Romney will prevail. Gingrich was mentioned only in passing by Democrats during a news conference that suggested "substantial problems" Romney will have connecting with Florida voters.
Times staff writers Marissa Lang and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.