Romney, Gingrich contest turns nasty
Washington - Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, the leading candidates in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination, exchanged accusations of greed as the campaign to challenge US President Barack Obama in 2012 turns nasty in the final weeks before primary election voting begins.
Former House speaker Gingrich, has become the front-runner among Republicans, especially the deeply conservative voters who typically dominate the nominating process and who distrust Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist.
Until recently, Romney had been coasting at the top of the polls - albeit with just 20% - 25% backing - as the favourite of the more moderate party establishment.
Both men insist they are best suited to turn Obama out of the White House at the end of his first term. The president remains deeply vulnerable with a voters who are disappointed with his handling of the economic recovery from the Great Recession.
Unemployment is still at 8.6%, and millions of Americans have lost their homes to mortgage foreclosures after the economic downturn that began in the final months of the George W Bush presidency.
Gingrich made his surprise move to the top of the polls through slick performances in a series of Republican debates and by playing the role of older and wiser conciliator among the seven candidates. Romney had largely avoided disputes with his fellow Republicans, choosing instead to level political fire at Obama.
But with Gingrich now in the lead nationally, Romney has refocused his campaign on Gingrich, who has shown himself at ease in returning acerbic barbs. It was Gingrich, who is known for tearing down his opponents, who led the Republicans to reclaim a majority in House of Representatives in 1994 after 40 years out of power.
The intensity of the Romney-Gingrich battle has risen as Iowa caucuses draw near. The Republican precinct meetings on January 3 in that state, in which political activists cast votes for their favoured candidate, is the first in the nation and can set a pattern for the series of state primary elections and caucuses that stretch on for months.
The eventual nominee is determined according to a candidates' accumulation of delegates by the opening of the national convention in August.
Romney, who has never found favour the most conservative Republicans - key voters in the nominating process - has been promising a more aggressive campaign style.
His increasing criticism of Gingrich came two days after the new front-runner held his own during a nationally televised debate, turning aside attacks from Romney and other rivals.
On Monday, Romney called on Gingrich to return the estimated $1.6m he received for providing strategic advice to Freddie Mac, the quasi-government agency that guarantees home mortgages and is under relentless attack from free-market conservatives. Gingrich has said he acted as a historian, not a lobbyist.
"That would make him the highest paid historian in history," Romney told Fox News Channel.
He suggested that Gingrich was an ultimate insider who leveraged his position as a former House leader to line his pockets when he left office.
"One of the things that I think people recognize in Washington is that people go there to serve the people and then they stay there to serve themselves," Romney said.
Gingrich countered quickly, saying that Romney should give back the millions he made at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm founded by Romney. Romney has been accused of making millions through massive layoffs and heartless cost cutting at businesses acquired by Bain.
"If Governor Romney would give back all the money he's earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over the years at Bain, then I would be glad to listen to him," Gingrich said.
Romney struck back, saying: "There's a big difference between... working as a lobbyist and working as a legislator, and working to connect businesses with government."
Romney's campaign also pressed the notion of Gingrich as a Washington insider, with news releases labelling him an "unreliable leader" and pictured with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, whom Republicans loathe.
Neither man is paying attention to the five other candidates. Only Texas Representative Ron Paul is showing well in the Iowa polls, but is considerably behind Romney and Gingrich.