TAMPA, Fla.-During the 19th debate of this Republican presidential cycle, and the last one before next Tuesday's crucial Florida primary, Mitt Romney flashed an aggressive side in an effort to separate himself from Newt Gingrich.
The clash between the two frontrunners began with the opening topic Thursday night in Jacksonville when Gingrich claimed that Romney was the most anti-immigrant of the four candidates.
"That's simply inexcusable," Romney scolded. "I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico … don't use a term like that."
Romney didn't stop there. He called the charge "repulsive" and said Gingrich should apologize for his "over-the-top rhetoric" and "highly charged epithets." The debate crowd responded by giving Romney one of the loudest cheers he has received in any debate so far.
Romney and Gingrich also fought over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Like he has done all week here in Florida, Romney attacked Gingrich for his $1.6 million contract as a Freddie Mac consultant.
"Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them, to influence other people throughout Washington," Romney said. "We should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter."
Gingrich countered by stating that Romney owns shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich wondered aloud "how much money [Romney has] made off of how many households that have been foreclosed."
Romney said his investments are in a blind trust. But he also had another response ready: "Have you checked your own investments?" Romney asked Gingrich. "You also have investments in mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."
The audience again applauded for Romney.
Romney also got in a sharp jab after Gingrich made a plea that private enterprise should compete to build a moon colony. Romney said if an executive came to him with that idea, "I'd say you're fired."
Meanwhile, Rick Santorum, running a distant third in Florida polls, managed to have a strong night by appearing to be above the initial bickering, asking, "Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress … and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" He earned his own cheers by suggesting that they "leave that alone and focus on the issues."
But later, Santorum did not hold back when it came to criticizing both Gingrich and Romney for once supporting types of health insurance mandates: "This is the top-down model that both of these gentlemen say they're now against but they've been for."
Ron Paul, the fourth candidate on stage, earned the night's biggest laughs. When asked about his health, Paul, who is 76, challenged his rivals to a 25-mile bike race and then half-jokingly threatened to sue CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer for age discrimination.
But the Florida race is no laughing matter for the two top contenders. Results here can either further boost the surprise surge Gingrich enjoyed after his South Carolina victory or help Romney regain the inside track he held after his win in New Hampshire.
The battle for the Sunshine State is tight according to numerous opinion polls. Romney holds a slim advantage over Gingrich in the most recent Florida polls. But Gingrich enjoys a 37 percent to 28 percent lead over Romney in a nationwide poll that The Wall Street Journal released Thursday night. Both Santorum and Paul lag far behind.
Trying to blunt the momentum Gingrich gained from his South Carolina win and sensing that a Florida victory for the former House speaker could spell doom for Romney, numerous establishment conservatives this week have publicly cast doubts about the strength of a Gingrich candidacy.
Former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole issued a sharply worded statement Thursday accusing Gingrich of hurting Republicans in 1996.
"I have not been critical of Newt Gingrich but it is now time to take a stand before it is too late," Dole said. "If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices. Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway."
During a stop earlier Thursday at a pre-debate Tea Party rally in Mount Dora, Fla., Gingrich veered off his normal campaign stump speech to respond.
"There's the Washington establishment sitting around in a frenzy, having coffee, lunch, and cocktail hour talking about, 'How do we stop Gingrich?'" Gingrich said. "Remember, the Republican establishment is just as much an establishment as the Democratic establishment, and they are just as determined to stop us."
Near the end of Thursday night's debate each of the four candidates got to discuss the role their religious beliefs would play in White House.
Santorum, a Catholic, said, "Faith has everything to do with it." Gingrich, also Catholic, argued, "Anyone who is president is faced with decisions so enormous that they should go to God." Romney, a Mormon, said he would "seek the guidance of providence in making critical decisions." Paul, who said his religious beliefs "affect my character and the way I treat people and how I live," asserted that his actions as president would be based on "the oath of office and promises I've made to people."
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