Romney: Gingrich activity 'potentially wrongful'

Mitt Romney launched a multipronged attack Monday on rival Newt Gingrich, including a scathing TV ad and personally accusing the former House speaker of engaging in “potentially wrongful activity” in his consulting work over the past decade.

Romney called on Gingrich to release his client list for that period. He offered no proof that Gingrich had engaged in wrongful behavior when, after leaving Congress, he worked with former colleagues to push for a prescription drug benefit for Medicare. Gingrich has never been a registered lobbyist.

“Was he working or were his entities working with any health care companies that could've benefited from that? That could represent not just evidence of lobbying but potentially wrongful activity of some kind,” Romney told reporters after a campaign appearance.

When asked if he was suggesting that Gingrich committed a crime, Romney said: “We just need to understand what his activity's been over the last 15 years, and make sure that it's conformed with all the regulations that might exist.”

The attacks, combined with the campaign's first negative ad and a conference call in which top surrogates criticized Gingrich, showed a newfound aggressiveness for Romney and set the stage for a presidential debate later Monday. Romney lost big to Gingrich in Saturday's South Carolina primary and has adopted a newly aggressive tone in an effort to try to regain the momentum from Gingrich.

“While Florida families lost everything in the housing crisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in,” the TV ad says, noting that the former speaker made more than $1.6 million working for Freddie Mac. “Gingrich resigned from Congress in disgrace and then cashed in as a D.C. insider.”

Gingrich has said he was a consultant for Freddie Mac, the federally backed mortgage company that played a significant role in the housing crisis.

Romney said Gingrich should return the more than $1.6 million he made from the company.

While Romney criticized Gingrich, Romney also profited from investments in Freddie Mac.

His most recent financial disclosure forms show he had a direct investment in Freddie Mac worth between $100,000 and $250,000. He made between $5,000 and $15,000 in interest income on it between February 2010 and February 2011.

Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom noted that, even though the former Massachusetts governor profited from the investment, he did not work for Freddie Mac as Gingrich did.

“Newt Gingrich said anybody who profited from Freddie Mac while defending their failed model ought to give the money back,” Fehrnstrom said.

While Romney's allies have been attacking Gingrich in television commercials for weeks, the Romney campaign's new commercial marked the first time it has directly attacked any of his opponents.

Romney answered questions from the media after an event Monday that made clear he intends to focus on housing in a state particularly hard hit by home foreclosures and the struggling economy.

But Romney didn't suggest he intends to change his own prescription for fixing the housing crisis. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal's editorial board last year that the housing market should be allowed to hit bottom.

Still, the attacks set the stage for Monday's debate, a forum in which Gingrich has thrived.

To improve his own performance, Romney was spending much of the day preparing for the two-hour debate with Brett O'Donnell, who advised President George W. Bush and 2008 nominee John McCain.

___

Associated Press writer Brian Bakst contributed to this report.

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