By Francis Wilkinson

That didn't last long.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich this morning departed from the campaign high road he had vowed just last week to follow. He attacked rival Mitt Romney for his tenure at Bain Capital LLC, the private equity and leveraged buyout firm Romney ran for more than a decade. Upon hearing that Romney had said Gingrich should return approximately $1.6 million in consulting fees he had earned from Freddie Mac, Gingrich responded with an attack that Democrats will surely reprise should Romney win the Republican nomination:

“I love the way he and his consultants do these things. I would just say that if Governor Romney would like to give back all the money he’s earned from bankrupting companies and laying off employees over his years at Bain that I would be glad to then listen to him. I’ll bet you $10, not $10,000” -- he said, referring to Romney’s $10,000 bet in Saturday night’s debate -- “that he won’t take the offer.”

Gingrich has a penchant for rhetorical warfare, and for sometimes waging it unwisely. His restraint last week was likely a case of virtue borne of necessity: Romney has plenty of money to engage in a nasty tit-for-tat on the airwaves, while Gingrich doesn't.

What Gingrich does have is the Republican debates. Saturday night's debate drew more than 7.5 million viewers, making it the night's ratings winner and the top draw of all the debates so far. With another  scheduled for Thursday, Gingrich is assured a big platform to counter Romney's advertising. Things could get ugly in a hurry.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board.)

-0- Dec/12/2011 17:46 GMT