TAMPA, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, coming off one of his most subdued debate performances of the campaign, signaled on Tuesday he may skip future debates unless his supporters are given full license to clap, cheer and roar.
Gingrich complained that NBC News moderator Brian Williams had told the crowd to be silent before Monday’s debate in Tampa in an effort to stifle free speech and prevent the audience from turning on the media.
“I wish in retrospect I’d protested when Brian Williams took them out of it because I think it’s wrong,” Gingrich said on Tuesday on Fox News.
“I think he took them out of it because the media is terrified that the audience is going to side with the candidates against the media, which is what they’ve done in every debate,” he said.
Gingrich and rival Mitt Romney are the top contenders in the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama, a Democrat, on November 6. The next contest is the January 31 Florida primary.
Without a roaring crowd to encourage him, Gingrich took a heavy pounding from Romney on Monday and spent long stretches of the debate on the defensive over his record in Congress and his work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.
Gingrich surged to victory over Romney in the South Carolina primary last Saturday after two debates that featured standing ovations for the former House of Representatives speaker as he lashed out at moderators Juan Williams of Fox News and John King of CNN for asking questions that he said were out of bounds.
“We’re going to serve notice on future debates,” Gingrich told Fox News. “We’re just not going to allow that to happen. That’s wrong. The media doesn’t control free speech. People ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.”
The debate crowds in South Carolina had been urged to participate, with Fox News moderator Bret Baier waving his arms to the crowd to whip up cheering before one debate.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said the Republican campaign had proved that “it’s the people who are attending the debate, not the moderators running it, that actually matter.”
The next debate is scheduled for Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida, and host CNN said it would not instruct the crowd to be silent before the it begins.
“As we have done in the past, CNN will ask the audience to be respectful of the candidates,” the network said in a statement. “We have always said that if audience reaction such as shouting or booing interferes with the debate or with the candidates’ answers, we will ask the audience to refrain.”
The Romney campaign criticized Gingrich and wondered how he would deal as the nominee with the more sober atmosphere of general election debates against Obama.
“It sounds like Newt Gingrich is running for pouter-in-chief,” Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom said. “The 2008 Commission on Presidential Debates did not permit audience participation. Is Newt saying he won’t debate Barack Obama in a general election? That would be disastrous for our party.”
Romney, who has fallen behind Gingrich in new polls in Florida after suffering the stinging loss in South Carolina, looked to get his campaign back on track by releasing two years of tax records.
Romney, the former front-runner, bowed to political pressure and released records that showed he will pay $6.2 million in taxes on a total of $42.5 million in income for 2010 and 2011.
That was an effective tax rate of 13.9 percent in 2010 and an expected 15.4 percent rate in 2011, below the tax rate of most Americans because most of Romney’s income came from capital gains that are taxed at a lower rate.
Gingrich had hammered Romney in South Carolina over his refusal to release his taxes, sparking questions about Romney’s vast wealth and his work as the former head of a private equity firm that critics say plundered companies and cut jobs.
With the race to find a Republican nominee to challenge Obama looking increasingly like a two-man fight, Romney attacked Gingrich during the debate as an unreliable leader who traded on his time in Washington to become an influence peddler.
Romney criticized Gingrich for his work for troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, his ethics troubles in Congress and for lobbying Republican lawmakers on health issues while getting paid by healthcare companies.
At a campaign event in Tampa, Gingrich returned fire at Romney. “I discovered that Romney has a new debate coach whose specialty is to say as many untrue things as fast as you can,” he said.
Romney’s campaign lined up two supporters - Representatives Connie Mack of Florida and Dave Camp of Michigan - to continue the attacks on Gingrich in a Tuesday conference call with reporters.
“In Florida, where the housing crisis has been so severe, you have a candidate running for president who was lining his pockets from Freddie Mac and reporting directly to the lead lobbyist for Freddie Mac,” Mack said.
Hours before the debate Gingrich, under pressure from Romney, released his contract with Freddie Mac that showed he was hired by the office in charge of lobbying. The contract, for one year of the six he worked for Freddie Mac, showed the Gingrich Group was paid $300,000 for 2006.
Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Alistair Bell and Will Dunham