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Romney, Gingrich Clash During GOP Debate In Tampa


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

GREENE: The latest Republican debate - last night in Florida - was more subdued than when the candidates last took the stage, in South Carolina. But still, it contained plenty of sharp jabs. After it was over, another dramatic turn in the race, with new revelations about Mitt Romney's taxes. We'll explore those numbers in depth, in a few minutes.

MONTAGNE: We begin our coverage with the debate's attacks, most of them launched by Romney against Newt Gingrich, who is ahead in the polls - at least for the moment.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: After a stunning loss to Gingrich in South Carolina, Romney came to Tampa determined to fight his way back.


LIASSON: And Romney kept going - unloading a file cabinet full of opposition research on Gingrich. He ridiculed the former speaker's claim that he was hired as a historian by Freddy Mac - the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation. Romney noted that the Freddie Mac contract described lobbying activities without using the word, and had Gingrich reporting to Freddie's chief lobbyist. The barrage prompted the moderator, Brian Williams, to ask Romney what had changed his mind about attack politics.


LIASSON: Newt Gingrich also took a new approach last night. He didn't lash out at the moderator, or channel the resentment of conservatives toward the establishment elites. But he did push back against Romney's attacks.


LIASSON: Gingrich also defended his tenure as speaker, saying he resigned after the 1998 elections because he took responsibility for the Republican losses that year. But his account was disputed by Ron Paul, who served in the House with Gingrich.


LIASSON: As Gingrich and Romney pounded each other in the debate and on the campaign trial yesterday, both were also making what might be called defensive disclosures. Gingrich released his contract with Freddie Mac just hours before the debate. It showed that he made $25,000 a month for, quote, consulting services.

Meanwhile, Romney said he would release, for the first time in his public career, his tax returns. Around midnight, he released 2010 and 2011 tax data - but no other years. They show he made 42 million in the last two years, and paid 6.2 million in federal taxes, an effective rate of less than 15 percent.


LIASSON: Romney was also asked about immigration. In a state with a big bloc of Hispanic voters, he tried to soften his earlier statement that illegal immigrants should all go home before applying for citizenship or for legal residency. That led to still more questions.


LIASSON: The audience laughed at that. But for the most part, they followed the moderator's instructions and were silent. That helped give this debate a subdued tone, in contrast to the two raucous debates in South Carolina that had given Gingrich such a big boost. Gingrich's combative but commanding performance in those debates had helped him pull even, despite Romney's superior resources and organization.

But last night, whether by design or not, Gingrich let Romney dominate. It was just the latest role reversal in a campaign that's had so many twists and turns. Now, Gingrich is acting like the front- runner, which he is - at least for the moment, and Romney is punching up, like an underdog.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Tampa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.