By almost all measures, Rep. Pete King is one of Mitt Romney’s most potent surrogates: He’s appeared on a Romney press call and has blasted Newt Gingrich, the former Massachusetts governor’s main rival, as a “political assassin” who “does not have the capacity to control himself.”
The only catch: the New York Republican hasn’t actually endorsed Romney — or any Republican presidential contender.
“It’s not coordinated with the Romney campaign,” King said. “I’m just freelancing. I’m doing this as a free agent, an independent contractor, whatever term you want to use.”
King, who arrived in Congress in 1993 and served under Gingrich, says he just doesn’t like the Georgia Republican and wants to do everything in his power to make sure he doesn’t become president. King, the media-savvy House Homeland Security Committee chairman, has launched a one-man crusade to take Gingrich down — conducting a spree of radio, television and print interviews in which he’s trashed the former House speaker. King told POLITICO this week that if Gingrich becomes the nominee, Republicans could even lose their House majority.
“I was there with Newt. I know what Newt’s like. I don’t like that he’s coming back from the dead,” King said. “I think he’d be very damaging for the party and for the country.”
Most of the politicos who appear on Romney’s regular press conference calls have actually endorsed the former Massachusetts governor. But on the morning of Jan. 19, King joined a Romney call, speaking alongside former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, an outspoken Romney backer.
The purpose of the event, predictably, was to bash Gingrich.
“Yeah, I’m one of those people who served with Newt Gingrich in Congress, and I will say up front that Newt was responsible for us winning back the House in 1994, but after that, it was just a series of self-induced wounds,” King railed on the call. “The Republican Party, for the four years that he was the speaker, we went from crisis to crisis and there’s enough real crisis in government, and, if you’re president, there’s enough crisis in the world without constantly manufacturing crises of your own.”
King said the press call was the only time he had been in touch with Romney’s campaign.
King’s involvement has left the Romney team perplexed. Former Rep. Guy Molinari, who’s chairing Romney’s New York campaign, said he reached out to King several times to seek an endorsement but that the congressman hadn’t returned any of his calls.
“He’s not on board with Romney,” Molinari said.
But the longtime Staten Island GOP boss said he welcomed the help nonetheless.
“I salute him for doing it,” Molinari said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
King is hardly the first former Gingrich colleague to take aim at the now-presidential candidate. Former GOP Reps. Susan Molinari and Jim Talent – both of whom served with Gingrich — have blasted him over his tenure as speaker. But Molinari and Talent have both endorsed Romney and continue to play key surrogate roles on his campaign.
King said that he will likely endorse Romney eventually. But he added that the two Republicans who he most wants to support, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, are not running.
King’s contempt for Gingrich dates back to the days following the 1996 election, when he openly blamed the volatile then-speaker for the House GOP’s eight-seat loss and called on him to step down.
Here’s how King recalls the beginning of the feud: “It was the spring of ’97 and I called Newt ‘roadkill on the highway of American politics,’ and it went downhill from there, I guess.”
The relationship has thawed out on occasion. In July 1997, when a group of House Republicans – including Ohio Rep. John Boehner and then-Reps. Bill Paxon and Dick Armey – attempted to launch a coup against Gingrich, King told the New York Daily News that he had no interest in joining the offensive. Shortly after, Gingrich mailed King a clipping of the article, thanking him and inviting him to share beers at The Dubliner, a popular Capitol Hill watering hole.
There is also a cultural and stylistic gap fueling the tension. King is a brash, plain-spoken northeastern moderate; Gingrich is a Southern conservative who frequently sounds like a history professor.
King, who said he hasn’t spoken to Gingrich in nearly a decade, said he recoiled from the former House speaker’s approach.
“This was not an ideological thing. It was tone. It was arrogance,” King said. “It was him telling us what books to read.”
For now, Gingrich’s campaign is shrugging off the attacks.
R.C. Hammond, a Gingrich spokesman, wrote in an email: “I have no explanation on the general grumpiness of the congressman.”