In Tampa, an Aggressive Romney and a Quiet Gingrich

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The former Massachusetts governor hits Gingrich hard, but this time there's no notable flare-up from the fiery former speaker.

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"Angry Newt" took the night off. In a striking role reversal, Newt Gingrich looked more like a firefly than a firebrand in a high-stakes debate Monday night, while rival Mitt Romney called the surging former House Speaker a disgraced, influence-peddling, Washington insider.

Somebody must have awakened the cool-and-nonchalant Romney out of his debate slumber and told him the GOP nomination was slipping away. Gingrich stunned the political world -- and frightened much of the GOP establishment -- with a landslide victory in South Carolina on Saturday night that erased Romney's lead in national and Florida polls.

The former Massachusetts governor waited 30 seconds to attack Gingrich and then used the phrased "resigned in disgrace" twice in the same answer to describe the end of his rival's tenure as House Speaker. He called Gingrich a creature of K Street, the corridor of Washington lobbyists, who cuddled on a couch with liberal Rep. Nancy Pelosi over cap-and-trade policy and attacked conservative Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare plan.

While Gingrich roamed K Street, Romney said he "fought" against cap-and-trade, he "fought" for Ryan and he "fought" for GOP values. Get it? He's a fighter.

"Mitt's a lot more Detroit than Harvard tonight," tweeted GOP consultant Mike Murphy, who worked for Romney in the past but is not affiliated with a campaign this cycle.

Humbled and humiliated in South Carolina, Romney used the 18th GOP debate to show voters that he wanted the nomination badly enough to fight for it. That is, after all, what GOP voters want most: A nominee with the guts and talent to stand up to President Obama.

In previous debates, especially the past two in South Carolina, Gingrich reflected the frustration of conservatives voters by lambasting debate moderators, members of the mainstream media so loathed by GOP voters. Romney saved his loathing for Gingrich.

"I didn't have an office on K Street. I wasn't a lobbyist," the former Massachusetts governor said during the NBC News/National Journal/Tampa Bay Times debate. "You have congressmen who say you came in and lobbied them..."

Gingrich replied: "You just jumped a long way over here, friend." The famously explosive former House speaker seethed, pausing for a moment to control his anger before denying the charge. Gingrich apparently decided that he is the front-runner and so could take the high road.

It was unclear whether the Angry Mitt and Confident Mitt acts would change the race's dynamics. If nothing else, Romney showed some life but he failed to provoke Gingrich's fiery temper -- "The Moment" he really needed.

Earlier in the day, Gingrich released his lucrative contract with Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant despised by small-government Republicans. The document blows a hole in the former speaker's claim that he was hired as a "historian." Whether or not Gingrich's services for Freddie Mac meet the technical definition of a lobbyist, the contract is a classic Washington bond between an influence peddler and client.

Handed this gift, Romney initially failed to sharply draw the contrast between what Gingrich said and what Gingrich did. "We just learned today that his contract with Freddie Mac was provided by the lobbyist at Freddie Mac," Romney said, adding that it would be a mistake to nominate somebody who was working for Freddie Mac's lobbyists.

"I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying," Gingrich replied.

Only in Washington would Gingrich's activities not be considered lobbying. Gingrich himself has said he gave "strategic advice" to Freddie Mac, and his own contract shows that he gave that advice to the firm's top lobbyist. All for the small price of $25,000 a month, which means that in two months Gingrich made the annual U.S. median household income.

Gingrich is splitting hairs: The contract actually provides for possibility that he would need to file as a lobbyist under Washington's forgiving ethics laws. And no matter how you read the contract, there is absolutely no way to justify Gingrich's initial description of his activities -- that he was paid in his capacity as a "historian." '

With barely concealed disdain, Gingrich swept aside every Romney attack by pointing voters to his web site and promising to rebut the charges there. "I'm not going to waste my time" responding to Romney, he said, calling the charges "the worst kind of politics."

It was brash dodge that Romney initially let pass, but he circled back later in the debate and nailed Gingrich. "They don't pay people $25,000 a month for six years to be a historian," Romney said. He added that Gingrich was being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the mortgage giant while Freddie Mac was "doing a lot of bad" to Floridians.

Both candidates struggled late in the debate with separate questions. Romney said he would not deport the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and did not support amnesty. His solution? "Self-deportation," he said: in other words, deny illegal immigrants jobs and hope they return to their home countries.

Gingrich had a hard time squaring his support of English-only laws and campaign tactics that target Hispanic voters in their native language. "I think it's essential to have a central language," he said with typical sanctimony.

And yet, not one nasty word for the moderator.

Image: Brian Snyder / Reuters

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Ron Fournier is editorial director of National Journal.

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