Picking up where their last debate left off, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich resumed battling Thursday night over personal integrity and the tenor of their respective campaigns, each accusing the other of unfair character attacks.
Romney, clearly itching for a fight, turned an early discussion on immigration policy into an assault on Gingrich over a radio spot he ran earlier this week on Florida's Spanish-language airwaves. Gingrich pulled the ad, which described Romney as "anti-immigrant," after it was criticized by Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising national star in Latino politics who is staying neutral in the primary.
"That ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate, Mr. Speaker," Romney said. "I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales.... The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive."
Later, it was Gingrich who took umbrage, accusing Romney of making "personal attacks about personal activities about which you're factually wrong."
The debate, which also included former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was the second this week in Florida, after Monday night's session in Tampa. There a pugnacious Romney faced a comparatively subdued Gingrich. This time, Gingrich gave as good as he got.
When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked about the tax information Romney released earlier this week, the former House speaker initially refused to engage, characteristically chiding Blitzer for even asking the question. "I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview with some TV show," Gingrich said, "but this is a national debate where you have the chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues."
With that, Romney jumped on Gingrich. "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they ... weren't willing to defend here?" Romney said.
Gingrich shot back, "OK. Given that standard, Mitt, I did say I thought it was a little unusual, and I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account," he said. "I'd be glad for you to explain that sort of thing."
Romney obliged, saying his investments were in a blind trust and all appropriate taxes were paid. "So look, let's put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money,"Romney said, "and let's get Republicans to say, you know what, what you've accomplished in your life shouldn't be seen as a detriment. It should be seen as an asset to help America."
Inevitably, after 18 debates, the candidates fell back on some familiar issues and answers.
The housing crisis has hit Florida harder than just about any place in the nation and foreclosures remain rampant. Romney used a question about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal housing giants, to hammer Gingrich for working for Freddie Mac after leaving Congress. "That was an enormous mistake," he said. "I think instead that we should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter."
Gingrich responded that while Romney had been "cheerfully" attacking him for his lucrative consulting work for Freddie Mac, he owned shares of both entities and made $1 million by selling some. He added that Romney had also invested in Goldman Sachs, which is foreclosing on homes here.
"So maybe Gov. Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he's made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments," he said, to a mix of boos and cheers.
Romney reiterated that his investments had been held in a blind trust for a decade, and that he never purchased stock in either Freddie or Fannie, but that they were part of mutual funds bought by a trustee who manages the trust. And he asked whether Gingrich had checked any of his own investments.
"You also have investments for mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," he said to laughter.
Gingrich responded, "To compare my investments with his is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant."
There was a bit of new ground broken in debate on the University of North Florida campus.
After several weeks in which the candidates tangled over releasing their tax records, all of them agreed that they would release their medical records.
Paul, 76, chuckled when Blitzer asked him about his health -- stating that his medical records were about "one page, if even that long."
"I'm willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day in the heat of Texas," Paul said to laughter and applause from the audience.
The Sunshine State, which defied national party rules to elbow its way forward on the campaign calendar, has gotten what Florida politicians wanted: an enormous say in who will become the nominee at the Republican National Convention in August in Tampa.
Gingrich hopes to prove his commanding win in Saturday's South Carolina primary was more than a bump on the way to Romney's ultimate coronation. Romney hopes a victory would not just dampen Gingrich's momentum but reassert his standing as a solid front-runner just as the nature of the race shifts from a fight for headlines -- the better to collect money and head into next week's contest -- into a more methodical fight to accumulate convention delegates.
After Florida, the campaign turns to Nevada for caucuses Feb. 4, and just a handful of contests before picking up again in early March. The next debate is not scheduled until Feb. 22 in Arizona.
One big difference in Thursday night's debate was the involvement of the crowd. On Monday night, audience members were admonished by moderator Brian Williams of NBC to restrain themselves and those attending obliged, resulting in a silence that Gingrich later complained was stifling to the audience (and perhaps his performance).
This time, host CNN invited the crowd to make their sentiments known — respectfully — and many in the audience happily obliged, jeering, booing, cheering and applauding.
Santorum drew some one of the biggest cheers of the night when he stepped in and tried to play peacemaker.
"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that's not the worst thing in the world?" Santorum said. "And that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he's going out and working hard."
"Leave that alone," he urged, "and focus on the issues."
He was unavailing. After a commercial break, Gingrich and Romney went right back at it.
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