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Aggressive Mitt Romney gets the best of Newt Gingrich in Florida debate

Los Angeles TimesRepublican presidential contender Mitt Romney, aiming for a knockout blow in next week’s Florida primary, tore into Newt Gingrich in a televised debate Thursday night and vigorously defended his personal wealth as an asset in his presidential campaign.

Romney was aggressive from the outset, starting with the issue of illegal immigration. Gingrich stood by a Spanish-language radio ad he had aired that said Romney was “anti-immigrant.” Gingrich withdrew the ad after being admonished by Florida’s popular Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

Romney, noting that both his father and his wife’s father were born outside the United States, said such language was “inexcusable.”

“The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive,” Romney said. "… I’m glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”

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Gingrich complained that Romney had “pretty ferociously” attacked him for saying that some of those who have been in the country illegally for 20 to 25 years should be allowed to stay.

Immigration authorities shouldn’t “walk in there and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out” of the country, Gingrich said. Romney did not back off.

“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” he said to cheers and applause. “Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants would like to have.”

In a turnabout from their last face-to-face encounter in South Carolina, which was followed by a Gingrich primary win Jan. 21, Romney carried the crowd during the final Florida confrontation. He was on offense from the time he took the stage, and was fluid and forceful in battering the former House speaker. Polls show the two in a dead heat heading into Florida’s vote Tuesday.

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Gingrich repeatedly found himself playing defense; he kept his emotions in check but lacked a breakthrough moment of the sort he has had in past debates. He had telegraphed, at recent campaign events, that he would savage Romney — but much of the time he did not follow through.

And when he began to challenge the debate moderator, a media-bashing tactic that often worked to his advantage in earlier debates, he met surprising resistance. After questioner Wolf Blitzer began to ask about Romney’s tax release, Gingrich called it “a nonsense question.”

But the CNN anchor noted that Gingrich had said this week that the former Massachusetts governor would be a flawed nominee because of his bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands. The crowd booed, but Blitzer pressed ahead.

As Gingrich wavered about discussing the issue, Romney weighed in, saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”

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Gingrich obliged.

“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 said that his investments were in a blind trust and full taxes were paid. And he issued his stoutest defense yet of his wealth.

“I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who’ve been successful, and try and by innuendo suggest there’s something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments,” he said.

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Romney said he earned his money and made investments that resulted in job creation.

“I’m proud of being successful; I’m proud of being in the free-enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I’m not going to run from that. I’m proud of the taxes I pay. My taxes plus my charitable contributions this year, 2011, will be about 40%,” he said. “So look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, 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.”

Gingrich responded that he wished Romney would stop his “factually wrong” attacks, then added, to boos from Romney supporters, “I would be glad to have a truce with you.”

Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania was Romney’s toughest interlocutor, challenging his embrace of a healthcare mandate in Massachusetts and arguing that Romney would be an ineffective opponent against President Obama since both had embraced “government-run, top-down medicine.”

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“Those are not the clear contrasts we are going to need if we are going to defeat Barack Obama,” Santorum said. “Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama’s mandate. It is the same mandate.”

At that point, Rep. Ron Paul weighed in: “I think they’re all wrong. This is a typical result of when you get government involved, because all you are arguing about is which form of government you want. They have way too much confidence in government sorting this out.”

At another point, Santorum, lagging in the polls and struggling to remain relevant, played peacemaker — seeking to steer the discussion back to the issues where he might have more of an opportunity to weigh in.

“Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and Newt 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, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard,” he said, as the audience cheered.

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The televised debates have played an unusually influential role in helping voters choose their candidate, exit polls have shown. With Florida up for grabs, Thursday’s debate had the potential to be one of the most important of the 19 that have been staged since May.

But efforts to gauge its impact are complicated by the fact that a significant number of Republicans have already voted. More than 400,000 primary ballots, out of a projected 1.5 million to 2 million, have already been cast. That includes more than a quarter-million absentee ballots that have been returned, and more than 150,000 additional votes that have been cast in person at early voting sites that remain open through Saturday.

The two-hour forum, held on the campus of the University of North Florida, was the last nationally televised debate for nearly a full month. The next debate is scheduled for Feb. 22 in Mesa, Ariz.

Whoever wins Florida next week faces an unusual challenge: maintaining momentum during a hole in the primary calendar. For nearly a month, there will be almost no delegates chosen anywhere in the country.

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After the Nevada caucuses a week from Saturday, the next contests that will result immediately in the awarding of delegates will be the Feb. 28 primaries in Arizona and Michigan.

paul.west@latimes.com

seema.mehta@latimes.com

Times staff writer Robin Abcarian contributed to this report.

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