Elections 2012: Florida Debate Turns Into Failure For Newt Gingrich

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney took the fight to chief rival Newt Gingrich on Thursday in his most aggressive debate performance yet, five days ahead of Florida’s primary vote.

A neck-and-neck race for Florida and its importance for the Republican presidential nomination made for a combustible atmosphere at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville as the candidates sparred repeatedly. Photo: Washington Examiner1/Flickr

Gingrich and Romney are running close in polls before next Tuesday’s primary vote in Florida, the biggest state so far in the early voting for the Republican nomination to face President Barack Obama in November.

According to Reuters, the most recent polls put Romney ahead.

Gingrich, who has displayed a mastery of debating skills during previous debates, was frequently caught flat-footed under attack from Romney who went after his chief rival in an attempt to put his campaign back on track after losing South Carolina last Saturday.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, took umbrage at Gingrich’s description of him as “anti-immigrant.”

“That’s inexcusable,” Romney said, turning to his rival. “I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. … The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that.”

The ad in question attacked Newt Gingrich for saying that Spanish is “the language of the ghetto.” Romney, however, turned to Gingrich and said he didn’t know whether the ad was true or not and wanted Gingrich to clarify.

“Let me ask the speaker a question. Did you say what the ad says or not? I don’t know,” Romney said.

Gingrich did draw attention to Romney’s vast wealth, which was put under the microscope this week when the former private equity executive release two years of tax documents.

“I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account. I’d be glad for you to explain that sort of thing,” he said.

Bickering erupted from the first question over illegal immigration, and intensified over Gingrich’s past work for the troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Romney raised Gingrich’s work for Freddie Mac as a sign that his rival was an influence peddler, a “horn tooter” for Freddie Mac. Romney has attacked Gingrich all week for accepting $1.6 million in consulting fees from Freddie Mac.

Gingrich fought back. “Romney made $1 million dollars on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” he said, an attack that fell flat when Romney pointed out that Gingrich owns stock in the two government-sponsored entities at the heart of the U.S. housing crisis.

Romney said that his investment in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was in a “blind trust” managed without his knowledge by a trustee.

“What my trustee did is he loaned money to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And they got paid interest,” Romney said. “But what the speaker did was get paid to promote Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

But, as the Boston Globe reported, the Fannie and Freddie investments were not in the blind trust: “Unlike most of Romney’s financial holdings, which are held in a blind trust that is overseen by a trustee and not known to Romney, this particular investment was among those that would have been known to Romney.”

However, Gingrich was ridiculed by Romney, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul for telling laid-off space workers near Cape Canaveral on Wednesday that if elected president next November he would seek to build a permanent colony on the lunar surface.

Romney said the money could be better spent elsewhere, that Gingrich’s proposal was a big idea but not a good one. Paul, a Texas congressman and libertarian, got off the zinger of the night.

“I don’t think we should go to the moon,” said Paul. “I think maybe we should send some politicians up there.”

After the debate members of Newt Gingrich’s campaign accused Mitt Romney’s campaign of packing the audience for the Republican presidential candidate debate on Thursday night in Jacksonville, Fla., with its own supporters to ensure that the dynamics would be favorable to Romney, reports The Huff Post.

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was asked after the debate if the campaign had worked to get supporters in the crowd. Fehrnstrom said he had invited his parents, who live in Jacksonville, but no one else.

“The campaign was given an allotment of tickets,” Fehrnstrom said. “I don’t know how many tickets they received. I assume it’s the same as every other campaign.”

“They definitely packed the room,” Kevin Kellems, one of Gingrich’s senior advisers, told The Huffington Post early Friday morning.

“The problem for them is their candidate, at several junctures, couldn’t remember what he had said before on an issue or what the fundamental truth is on a given topic. TV viewers tend to notice and remember things like that,” he said.

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