Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney traded bitter blows Monday ahead of their first face-to-face meeting since the former House speaker's shock weekend win roiled the Republican presidential race.
In more misery for Romney, a new poll released Monday found Gingrich had reversed the former Massachusetts's governor in Florida and was now up by nine percent.
Romney, still smarting from his surprise defeat in Saturday's South Carolina primary, hit out at Gingrich's leadership record during his time as speaker and accused him of influence peddling and lobbying since he left Congress.
Gingrich, his once-fading campaign to be the Republican party's nominee in the November elections suddenly re-energized, hit back by characterizing his rival as "timid" and accusing him of deliberately perpetrating falsehoods.
New fireworks were expected late Monday with the two men set to spar at a televised debate being held in Tampa, Florida, ahead of the vote-rich battleground state's primary on January 31.
Gingrich brushed aside accusations he had a record of erratic, chaotic leadership in Congress when he was also hit by an ethics inquiry.
"I think you're going to see the establishment go wild the next week or two. The idea of a Gingrich presidency actually changing Washington, of my ignoring all the powers that be... I think that they are very frightened at the idea of a genuine outsider," he told ABC.
"If people want somebody that's going to shake up Washington I think I can do it. If they want somebody who's going to be timid and manage the decay, they ought to vote for Romney," the irascible Gingrich said.
Gingrich's resounding victory Saturday turned the race on its head, and his political resurrection ensures a dramatic battle to be the Republican standard-bearer against Democratic President Barack Obama on November 6.
"It was not a great week for me," a stung Romney conceded to Fox News Sunday after Gingrich walloped him by 12.5 percentage points.
A Rasmussen poll found the former speaker was now running at 41 percent in Florida, with his rival, the former Massachusetts governor, in second at 32 percent. Just last week, Romney had a 22-point lead in the Sunshine State.
Romney vowed he was going to go after his rival's character more strongly, implying he would call out Gingrich on past ethics charges and his admitted marital affairs. He also attacked him as a "failed leader" at a campaign event on Sunday.
"Character is a big part of leadership, as is vision, sobriety, steadiness. These are attributes which I think people want to see in their candidate," Romney said.
On Monday, he urged Gingrich to release his contract with mortgage giant Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac -- blamed for helping to cover up the depth of America's housing bubble which collapsed plunging the nation into recession.
"The speaker has been working over the last 15 years on K Street in Washington. It's a form of influence peddling or lobbying depending on who's definition you want to use, but basically he's connecting corporations with government," Romney told Fox News.
The former speaker was paid some $1.6 million in consulting fees for what he called his advice as a "historian" which he gave to the company, and said he was in discussion about releasing the records.
Obama's reelection team also twisted the knife Monday, seeking to deepen Romney's wounds, in a clear sign that the president's brain trust would rather face Gingrich in November, believing he is easier to beat.
"The bottom line is this: the more voters learn about Romney, the more unfavorably they view him," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a memo.
"This week Florida's voters will meet a candidate with no core values who believes he's entitled to play by a different set of rules," he said, pressing a campaign narrative that Romney is a mere cipher for the wealthy.
Florida is a far larger and more diverse state than the others which have so far voted, with Romney's vaunted campaign riches and well-oiled machine expected to give him the edge.
More than 220,000 voters have already cast early ballots, a state party official told AFP. And the Rasmussen poll found Romney was leading in those votes by about 11 percent.
But strategists believe the restive mood among the Republican electorate may favor Gingrich, just as it did in South Carolina.
Source: AFP American Edition