JEFFREY BROWN: The Republican presidential race a sharp new turn today. Mitt Romney launched an aggressive assault on Newt Gingrich, the weekend winner in South Carolina, and Gingrich answered in kind.
Judy Woodruff begins our coverage.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The new Romney offensive cranked up in Florida after his 12-point loss in South Carolina. In Tampa, he charged Gingrich, a former House speaker, should not have pressed Congress for a Medicare drug benefit since he was not a registered lobbyist.
MITT ROMNEY (R): That could represent not just evidence of lobbying, but potentially, you know, wrongful activity of some kind.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Under questioning, Romney stopped short of saying outright that Gingrich committed a crime.
MITT ROMNEY: We just need to understand what his activity has been over the last 15 years and make sure that it’s conformed with all the regulations that might exist.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Gingrich fired back at his own appearance in Tampa, suggesting Romney is running scared.
NEWT GINGRICH (R): If you’ve been campaigning for six years and you begin to see it slip away, you get desperate. And when you get desperate, you say almost anything. This is such baloney. Now, it used to be pious baloney, but now it’s just desperate baloney. So, that’s the succession of this campaign. We’ve moved from Romney’s pious baloney to Romney’s desperate baloney.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The former Massachusetts governor also released a new television ad attacking Gingrich’s consulting work for the mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
NARRATOR: While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in. Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis.
JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Romney’s financial disclosure forms show he too profited from Freddie Mac through his investments. Still, Romney insisted that Gingrich also release all documents from a congressional ethics investigation he faced in the ’90s.
MITT ROMNEY: And in the case of the Speaker, he’s got some records which could represent an October surprise. We could see an October surprise a day from Newt Gingrich.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Earlier on ABC, Gingrich said he found Romney’s document demand ironic.
NEWT GINGRICH: Here’s somebody who’s released none of his business records, who has decided to make a stand on transparency without being transparent. I did no lobbying, period. He keeps using the word lobbyist because I’m sure his consultants tell him it scores well. It’s not true. He knows it’s not true. He’s deliberately saying things he knows are false.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The barrage came after Romney spent part of the weekend playing defense. On FOX News yesterday, he bowed to demands by Gingrich and others to release his tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 tomorrow, and not wait ’til April.
MITT ROMNEY: We just made a mistake in holding off as long as we did. It just was a distraction. We want to get back to the real issues in the campaign.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the Gingrich campaign reported raising $1 million in the 24 hours after its victory in South Carolina. The cash infusion came as Gingrich faces the expense of buying television ads in Florida’s multiple media markets.
Campaigning in Lady Lake, Fla., today, Rick Santorum, who finished third in South Carolina, warned against the Romney-Gingrich infighting.
RICK SANTORUM (R): We want to make this race about one thing: about Barack Obama and his record. That’s what this race has to be about. If this race is about the Republican nominee and their inconsistencies, their problems and all the other issues that are revolving around them, folks, a billion dollars and the mainstream media will make this a very, very ugly election.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Texas Congressman Ron Paul had no appearances in Florida today but planned to take part in tonight’s debate.
GWEN IFILL: For more now, we’re joined by Stuart Rothenberg of The Rothenberg Political Report and Roll Call newspaper, and Susan Page, Washington bureau chief of USA Today. She is in Tampa, where the Republicans meet to debate tonight.
So, Susan, you’re on the ground in Florida. What are these two especially leading candidates up to, to take advantage of what happened in South Carolina in Newt Gingrich’s case and to overcome what happened in South Carolina in Mitt Romney’s case?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: You know, Gwen, this is the ninth presidential campaign I have covered, and I have never seen anything like we see happening in these last few days.
Eight days ago, Mitt Romney had a 23-point national lead in the Gallup poll over Newt Gingrich. Today, that’s down to a single and significant point. You know, Romney has had an organization. He’s had a lot more money than Newt Gingrich. And Newt Gingrich has had a surge the likes of which we’ve never seen.
And I think this debate tonight and another debate that is scheduled for Thursday night are going to be the keys to whether this race really gets just turned on its head.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Susan, I have to ask you, what did Mitt Romney mean when he started talking about October surprises?
SUSAN PAGE: I think he’s reflecting a concern by a lot of establishment Republicans that Mitt — that Newt Gingrich is a flawed — would be a flawed nominee, that he’s mercurial, that he has a past where he has taken a lot of different positions, he’s been a provocateur, basically, for the last decade or two, and there will be a lot to mine there by Democrats.
But the fact is, Newt Gingrich has managed to tap into the mood of Republican voters this year, which is angry and defiant and really wants to take on President Obama in a big way. And it’s working for him so far. Florida is a state that’s a much bigger test, a huge state, much more diverse than the first three contests we saw. But if he can do it here, man, how is Mitt Romney going to stop him?
GWEN IFILL: Stu, if we’re talking about two guys in a ring boxing it out now, it seems that they’re very different approaches, even watching Mitt Romney just now. He was saying, well, we’re going to — in a circular way, we are going to see what he does which may not be within the law, whereas Newt Gingrich comes out and says it’s desperate baloney.
STUART ROTHENBERG, The Rothenberg Political Report: Right, as if Romney just read that rule book, who was that, the Queensbury — Marquis of Queensbury rule book about how to fight.
And he’s kind of a dignified fighter. The thing about Newt is he likes to throw the bombs. And this is an environment where Republican voters are exactly — as Susan said, they’re angry, they’re defiant. They’re confrontational. They’re mad not only at President Obama. They’re really mad at him. But they’re angry at the establishment and their own leaders.
So they’re looking for someone who will take no prisoners and who says, I’m going to stick it to it — as we hear every time, Gwen — the liberal media, the liberal establishment. They love that.
GWEN IFILL: Susan was just talking about how desperate mainstream Republicans are over this. Have you been picking up on that too?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Oh, oh, absolutely.
No, I get that every day when I call around and speak to strategists and insiders. They’re very concerned, because it’s one thing to appeal to the bomb thrower in the party when those are the people who are picking the nominee. But the reality is, in a general election, the kind of people that are going to decide who wins, the Republican or the Democrat, are going to be swing voters.
And they’re frustrated and they’re worried and they’re upset, but they’re not nearly as angry as the average Republican is.
GWEN IFILL: Susan, whenever we get to Florida, whether it’s a primary or a general, it always ends up being crucial.
So what it is about Florida, particularly for these two Republican candidates, that they’re going to have to zero in on?
SUSAN PAGE: Well, I think housing is an issue we are going to hear a lot about in tonight’s debate.
Florida has the seventh highest rate of foreclosures, home foreclosures, of any state in the nation. It’s really been hit hard by the housing bust. That’s one reason we see the ad that Judy showed from Romney that tries to link Gingrich to the problems in the housing market, although – you know it’s interesting — Mitt Romney this morning demanded that Newt Gingrich release his contract with Freddie Mac.
And the Gingrich group says they’re going to release it tonight. One other thing that’s happened just in the last half-hour or so is that Jon Ralston, a friend of the NewsHour, the reporter from Las Vegas, says that the Las Vegas billionaire who’s been funding Newt Gingrich’s super PAC has agreed to throw another $5 million into the pot. That will help make Gingrich competitive on the airwaves here.
That’s one important thing here, eight big media markets in Florida. Mitt Romney has been advertising here for weeks and weeks. We’re going to see a barrage here on both sides in this final week that, you know, Florida voters better brace themselves for.
GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting in Florida. Until tomorrow, Newt Gingrich hasn’t been on the air at all. But that may not even matter, especially if they’re evenly matched.
So what are the other measures that we’re using to decide what happens next, even though last week this time, none of our measures turned out the way they were.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, we’re still certainly looking at the survey data as they come out to see if there’s any movement.
You know, I think what’s crucial, what’s going to be crucial, Gwen, is A., can Romney change the discussion so it’s about — it’s about Gingrich? And can he raise questions about Gingrich’s agenda, ideology? Is he really a conservative? It’s going to be hard to dictate to people who to vote. You kind of have to lead them to the information and hope that they start drinking it in.
GWEN IFILL: So, Stu, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are going to be on the stage tonight. But both of them have said they’re not really competing in Florida, like the two main guys are. So, watching this debate tonight, what are you looking for between the two primary candidates?
STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, this is a race now that boils down to a kind of two-and-a-half, two-and-a-quarter person race, with Santorum still in the background buzzing around and Paul there.
GWEN IFILL: Throwing bombs, yes.
STUART ROTHENBERG: But, yes, we’re going to look to see I think whether Mitt Romney is more aggressive, whether he can deliver an attack without looking almost uncomfortably silly.
Can he really take it on? And how Gingrich responds. Remember, when Newt Gingrich is the frontrunner, that’s when he’s in the greatest danger. He is a guy with a big personality and a big ego. And sometimes he oversteps when he thinks he’s got the upper hand.
GWEN IFILL: And, Susan, what are you looking for tonight?
SUSAN PAGE: I think Stu is just right.
Here’s the question. Can Romney get under Newt Gingrich’s skin or can he bait him to say something that seems outrageous or unwise? Because the fact is, in all these debates we have had — what is this, the 18th debate…
GWEN IFILL: It’s the 18th debate.
SUSAN PAGE: . . . we’ve had this season?
In all these debates, I mean, it’s hard to think of a bad moment for Newt Gingrich. It’s his natural domain. He loves being on the debate stage. He was born to debate. And that’s really served him well in this presidential contest that has been defined to such a great extent by these debates.
GWEN IFILL: Well, Susan Page, I know you’re on your way to cover that debate tonight. Tell us what it’s all about in tomorrow’s USA Today.
Stu Rothenberg, thank you very much.
STUART ROTHENBERG: Thanks, Gwen.
SUSAN PAGE: Hey, thanks, Gwen.