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Romney Is Aggressor in Final Florida Debate

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Republican presidential candidates Newt Gingrich listens to former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images/Getty)

An aggressive Mitt Romney repeatedly challenged Republican presidential rival Newt Gingrich in a fast-paced campaign debate Thursday night, ridiculing the former House speaker's call to build costly projects in key primary states and to colonize the moon.

Just days before the primary election in Florida, a state with a large number of immigrants, Romney vehemently denied Gingrich's own accusation that he is anti-immigrant - more so than any other candidate. And, as charges flew back and forth, Gingrich rebutted any suggestion that he wasn't the man to rein in federal spending.

"You don't just have to be cheap everywhere. You can actually have priorities to get things done," Gingrich declared, saying that as speaker of the House he had helped balance the budget while doubling spending on the National Institutes of health.

The debate was the second in four days in the run-up to next Tuesday's Florida primary. Opinion polls make the race a close one - slight advantage Romney - with two other contenders, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind.

Gingrich's upset victory in the South Carolina primary last week upended the race for the nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall, and Romney in particular can ill-afford a defeat on Tuesday.

While the clashes between Gingrich and Romney dominated the debate, Santorum drew applause from the audience when he called on the two front-runners to stop attacking one another and "focus on the issues."

"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress ... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he said in a tone of exasperation.

The first clash occurred moments after the debate opened, when Gingrich responded to a question by saying Romney was the most anti-immigrant of all four contenders on stage. "That's simply inexcusable," the former Massachusetts governor responded.

"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant, my father was born in Mexico," Romney declared. "I'm not anti-immigrant."

At the same time, Romney noted that Gingrich's campaign had been pressured to stop running a radio ad that called Romney anti-immigrant after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called on Gingrich to do so.

He called on Gingrich to apologize for the commercial, but got no commitment.

About an hour later, Romney pounced when the topic turned to Gingrich's proposal for an permanent American colony on the moon - an issue of particular interest to engineers and others who live on Florida's famed Space Coast.

A career businessman before he became a politician, Romney said: "If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, `You're fired.'"

The audience erupted in cheers, but Romney wasn't finished.

He said the former speaker had called for construction of a new Interstate highway in South Carolina, a new VA hospital in northern New Hampshire and widening the port of Jacksonville to accommodate the larger ships that will soon be able to transit the Panama Canal.

Gingrich responded that part of campaigning is becoming familiar with local issues, adding, "The port of Jacksonville is going to have to be expanded. I think that's an important thing for a president to know." He went on to refer to completion of an Everglades project that he did not describe, then noted he had worked to expand NIH while he was speaker.

Gingrich raised questions about Romney's wealth and his investments. "I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account," Gingrich said. Romney replied that his investments were in a blind trust over which he had no control. "There's nothing wrong with that," declared Romney, who has estimated his wealth at as much as $250 million.

Earlier Thursday, it was disclosed that Romney and his wife, Ann Romney, failed to list an unknown amount of investment income from a variety of sources including a Swiss bank account on financial disclosure forms filed last year. His campaign said it was working to correct the omissions.

Gingrich also failed to report income from his 2010 tax return on his financial disclosure. The former Georgia congressman will amend his disclosure to show $252,500 in salary from one of his businesses, spokesman R.C. Hammond said.

Romney and Gingrich also vied to stress their support for Israel rather than criticize one another.

And all four men were quick to name prominent officials of Hispanic descent who deserved consideration for the Cabinet. Gingrich trumped the other three, saying, "I've actually thought of Marco Rubio in a slightly more dignified and central role," an evident reference to the vice presidential spot on the ticket.

Immigration was a recurring theme, but it was difficult to discern their differences.

Both men said they want to clamp down in illegal immigration, create programs to make sure jobs go only to legal immigrants and deport some of the 11 million men and women in the country unlawfully.

Gingrich has never said how many illegal residents he believes should be deported, preferring to say that the United States is not going to begin rounding up grandmothers and grandfathers who have lived in the United States for years.

Romney agreed that was the case - and Gingrich said that marked a switch in position.

"Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Romney said. "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants would like to have."

In the days since Romney's loss in South Carolina, he has tried to seize the initiative, playing the aggressor in the Tampa debate and assailing Gingrich in campaign speeches and a TV commercial.

An outside group formed to support Romney has spent more than his own campaign's millions on ads, some of them designed to stop Gingrich's campaign momentum before it is too late to deny him the nomination.

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Comments [1]

Matt from jackson Heights

There's nothing wrong with a person being very successful and becoming very wealthy through their efforts. But that's the wrong question. The real question - which Romney doesn't seem to address - is whether a multi-hundred millionaire such as himself is the best choice to be the President of all the people of the United States, rich and poor alike.

Jan. 27 2012 11:50 AM

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