A "questionable" nominee at best, he said.
WASHINGTON - Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, politically sidelined since he dropped out of the Republican presidential primary race in August, ripped into ascendant GOP contender Newt Gingrich on Monday, joining Mitt Romney's attack on the former House speaker as a "questionable" standard-bearer for his party.
"For Republicans and conservatives all across this country, a question is going to have to be asked as they consider Newt Gingrich as a potential nominee for president: Really? I mean, really?" Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty biting remarks came in a national press call organized by the Romney campaign, which was dealt a significant setback by Gingrich's strong victory in Saturday's South Carolina primary.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond pointed to a Minneapolis health care conference Pawlenty did with Gingrich in 2009, extolling the virtues of Minnesota's health care system. "Funny he would say those things," Hammond wrote in an e-mail.
Pawlenty's attack reflects the growing alarm of establishment GOP party elders who see Gingrich as a deeply flawed candidate marred by personal and political breaches over a long career in Washington.
"The possibility of Newt Gingrich being our nominee against Barack Obama, I think, is essentially handing the election over to Obama," Pawlenty said. "And I think that's shared by a lot of folks in the Republican Party."
Pawlenty's statements appear to be part of a coordinated Romney effort to blunt a Gingrich challenge in next week's Florida primary, the first large state to weigh in on the GOP contest.
Not 'jumping on the bus'
Joining Pawlenty was Rep. Will Weatherford, speaker-designate of the Florida House. "It's interesting that when you look around the country, and a lot of [Gingrich's] former colleagues, they don't all seem to be jumping on the bus," Weatherford said.
Indeed, the Romney campaign has been lining up prominent Washington Republicans recently to raise questions about Gingrich's leadership record in the U.S. House, where he was fined and resigned as speaker in 1998 under an ethics cloud.
Pawlenty, now a national co-chair of the Romney campaign, also took aim at Gingrich's post-political career in Washington. Gingrich had a $1.6 million contract with Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored mortgage giant that many Republicans blame for the nation's housing crisis.
"This is somebody who has had so many incredibly unfortunate and questionable activities while he was speaker, post-speaker, that he's not somebody that I think can carry the banner for the Republican Party and the conservative movement forward as a nominee or as a future president," Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty and Weatherford, noting that Gingrich has pressed Romney to release his tax returns, called on Gingrich to publicly release his consulting contract with Freddie Mac.
Later Monday, Gingrich arranged for the release of only the contract for 2006. It showed that Freddie Mac paid his consulting firm a $25,000 monthly retainer fee, for a total of $300,000. The agreement calls for "consulting and related services" but makes no mention of lobbying.
The material was released by the Center for Health Transformation, which Gingrich helped create, and has since sold.
Gingrich has dismissed the idea that he lobbied for the housing agency, describing his duties instead as those of a historian.
Pawlenty called Gingrich's description "hair-splitting. ... His influence peddling with respect to Freddie Mac to Congress needs to be revealed," Pawlenty said.
"He's called upon Governor Romney to be transparent," Pawlenty said. "Well, Speaker Gingrich needs to be transparent on this issue and many others. And the notion that he was ... a historian for Freddie Mac is just BS. It's just nonsense."
The other side of the coin
The attacks on Gingrich's past with Freddie Mac worked against him in Iowa and New Hampshire. But Romney also has come under criticism over reports that at the peak of the housing crisis in 2007, he put as much as $500,000 in mutual funds that were heavily invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
The new offensive also exposes Pawlenty to questions about the possibility of a post-political career as a lobbyist, an occupation he declined to forswear. "The point we're making here is transparency," Pawlenty said. "Whether somebody wants to go work for a law firm or a lobby firm or PR firm is up to them. I don't have any current plans or commitments to do that."
Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.