Tampa: Mitt Romney was desperate for a stronger performance in Florida`s Republican debate on Monday to restore momentum to his campaign, and he delivered one with repeated sharp attacks on rising rival Newt Gingrich.
Often derided as a lukewarm debater, Romney lashed out at Gingrich for resigning as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives under an ethical cloud and repeatedly labeled him an influence peddler.
The former Massachusetts governor needs a victory in Florida`s primary on January 31, after he and two other rivals split the first three contests in the race for the nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in November`s election.
New opinion polls show that Gingrich has jumped into the lead in Florida, after a convincing victory over Romney in South Carolina`s primary on Saturday. The first few days of the Florida primary campaign have been a straight two-man race.
Romney kept on message on Monday by seeking repeatedly to tar Gingrich as a Washington insider who lobbied for clients including the troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
"In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington," Romney said.
Romney took a much tougher tone than he did last week during a debate in South Carolina, when he stumbled in response to questions about his tax records and Gingrich.
"I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina, and that was I had incoming from all directions, was overwhelmed with a lot of attacks. And I`m not going to sit back and get attacked day in and day out without returning fire," Romney said.
Gingrich shot back with a new attack on Romney`s record, but he was mostly on the defensive, a departure from recent debates when he has dominated the stage.
"In 2006 when you chaired the Governors Association, we lost governorships. And in the four years that you were governor, we lost seats in the Massachusetts legislature. So I think as a party builder, the 20 years I spent building the House Republican Party stands pretty good as an example of leadership," Gingrich said.
He staunchly denied he had ever worked as a lobbyist.
But despite the exchanges, the mood in the hall at South Florida University seemed almost subdued.
The crowd respected a request not to cheer during the discussion, and there were few red-meat lines like Gingrich`s attacks on the media in South Carolina when he was asked about one of his divorces.
Romney`s staff said that the more sterile debate format, without crowd reactions, benefited Romney.
"One of the big dynamics is when there`s not a big crowd that`s hooting and hollering, it becomes a very different debate," Stuart Stevens, Romney`s chief strategist, said. "It becomes more of an examination of ideas and less sort of a game show environment and more of a serious debate."
But Romney did make what appeared to be a blunder when he suggested illegal immigrants should practice "self-deportation" instead of being rounded up and shipped home.
"The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can`t find work here because they don`t have legal documentation to allow them to work here, and so we`re not going to round people up," he said.