Mitt Romney tonight accused Newt Gingrich of "influence peddling" during his time as a consultant for Freddie Mac, a sharp attack from the one-time front-runner that reflected the close race for the Republican nomination.
The showdown between Romney and Gingrich on center stage at the latest Republican presidential debate, eclipsing the two other candidates, wore on for so long that at one point, the debate's moderator had to cut them off to take a commercial break.
Romney started out by sharply criticizing Gingrich over his time as speaker of the House in the 1990s, then turned his criticism to Gingrich's work with mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
"I don't think we could possibly retake the White House if the person who's leading our party is the person who's working for the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac," Romney said.
But Gingrich countered with his trademark direct style.
"You've been walking around this state saying things that are not true," Gingrich said.
He defended his role as a consultant to the mortgage giant by arguing that he wasn't lobbying, per se, but rather was openly advocating for Medicare plans.
"Here's why it's a problem," Romney said. "If you're getting paid by health companies ... that can benefit from a piece of legislation, and you then meet with Republican congressmen and encourage them to support that legislation, you can call it whatever you like. I call it influence peddling."
The debate in Tampa, Fla., began on a decidedly negative tone and reflected the tension between Romney and Gingrich after the ex-speaker dominated the early front-runner in the South Carolina primary over the weekend.
Romney repeated a handful of times that Gingrich "had to resign in disgrace" from the House after an ethics investigation faulted him.
Gingrich deflected Romney's barbs by saying the ex-governor and his consultants are "terrible" historians, and he insisted that the Republican Party fared well enough in the congressional elections while he was the speaker of the House.
"I'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase Mitt Romney's misinformation," Gingrich said. "This is the worst kind of trivial politics."
The negative nature of the debate wasn't lost on the candidates. Romney acknowledged his shift in strategy as a reaction to the shellacking Gingrich gave him in the last primary vote.
"I learned something from that last contest in South Carolina," Romney said. "I'm not going to sit back and get attacked ... without returning fire.
"I'm going to point out things that I think people need to know," he said.
The candidates spent the beginning portion of the debate going over personal issues, not national ones. Romney, for example, was questioned about his tax release, due within hours, and said he wouldn't follow his father's lead and release 12 years' worth of returns.
He said that while he and his father agree on many things, "we also disagree, and going out with 12 years of returns is not something I'm going to do."
There is nothing controversial in the returns, he said, but he acknowledged that "I'm sure people will talk about" them.
"I paid all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more," Romney said.
Romney also turned the questions about his taxes into a riff on his plan to lower taxes, and he told Gingrich that under the ex-speaker's plan, he would pay nothing in taxes because all his income comes from investments.
Gingrich replied by suggesting that he'd be fine with that, "if you created enough jobs doing that."
Each harped on his background, trying to prove that he was the more conservative candidate: Romney played up his work in private businesses, while Gingrich spoke of his fondness for the principles of Ronald Reagan.
"I've worked in the private sector," Romney said.
To which Gingrich countered, "I helped Governor Reagan become President Reagan."
There were two other candidates at the debate -- Rick Santorum and Ron Paul -- but neither got much time in the spotlight.
Paul told the debate's moderator, NBC's Brian Williams, that he has "no plans" to run for president as a third-party candidate if he doesn't win the Republican nomination.
"I have no intention," Paul said. "I don't want to."
Santorum, meanwhile, continued to try to portray Romney and Gingrich as too moderate by tying them to the policies in President Obama's health care program.
"Governor Romney's plan in Massachusetts was the basis for 'ObamaCare,'" he said. "Speaker Gingrich, for 20 years, supported a federal individual mandate."
The debate included a number of questions pertinent to Florida, like space exploration and the years-old case of Terri Schiavo.
Paul, a doctor, was asked about his view of the debate over Schiavo -- a woman in a persistent vegetative state whose husband and family fought over whether to let her die -- and said it was a reminder for everyone to "have a living will" so families can make a decision.
"This was way out of proportion to what happens more routinely," he said. "But it should urge us all to try to plan for this."
On funding NASA, Gingrich discouraged "building a bigger bureaucracy" but said that private-sector investments and incentives for space exploration work would get Florida's economy going. He also talked of "romantic and exciting futures."
The candidates spent a significant portion of the debate exchanging views on Iran, but also on another foreign policy issue that is a prime topic in Florida: immigration.
Questioned on his plan to encourage illegal immigrants to return to their countries to reapply for citizenship, Romney said his proposal for "self-deportation" would provide a "transition period" for undocumented workers who would have to decide at the end of that time whether they want to stay without valid papers or leave.
On a similar topic, the candidates debated having English as the country's official language. Paul said that while he, like all of the candidates, support that, he wouldn't support a federal effort to ban initiatives like ballots in Spanish.
"You can solve some of these systems without dictating one answer for all states," Paul said.
Romney and Gingrich took more hard-line stances.
"People need to learn English to be able to be successful," Romney said.
"It is essential to have a central language," Gingrich said.