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Jan. 27 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney assailed Newt Gingrich repeatedly in the final televised Republican presidential debate before Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, putting the former U.S. House speaker on the defensive for his campaign tactics and policies.
Romney accused Gingrich of “repulsive” rhetoric that twisted the former Massachusetts governor’s position on immigration, making accusations in media interviews that Gingrich was unwilling to repeat during a debate and criticizing Romney’s success as a former private-equity executive.
It marked a more aggressive posture for Romney, who is working to blunt Gingrich’s challenge to him for the party nomination in a state that represents the most diverse electorate so far of the primary campaign.
Romney demanded an apology in the debate’s first moments because Gingrich branded him the most “anti-immigrant” candidate among the Republicans.
“The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive; don’t use a term like that,” Romney said at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. He said Gingrich’s charge was an example of “the over-the-top rhetoric” too prevalent in U.S. politics.
Gingrich stood by his criticisms of Romney while opening no new lines of attack. He is attempting to sustain momentum following his 12 percentage point defeat of Romney in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary.
Gingrich defended his characterization of Romney as anti- immigrant, which his campaign leveled in a Spanish-language radio ad that aired in Florida and has since been withdrawn. He said the label fits because Romney “attacked pretty ferociously” Gingrich’s previous assertions that, as part of cracking down on illegal immigration, “grandmothers and grandfathers aren’t going to be successfully deported.”
Later, Romney challenged criticisms Gingrich made of his wealth this week, after revelations in his tax returns released Jan. 24 that he holds investments in the Cayman Islands and had a Swiss bank account.
When Gingrich declined an invitation from CNN debate moderator Wolf Blitzer to address the issue, Romney quickly said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”
“Ok, alright,” Gingrich said when pressed. “Mitt, I did say I thought it was unusual. And I don’t know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account.”
Santorum and Paul
While former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul also participated in the debate, the exchanges between Romney and Gingrich set the stage for their final pushes in Florida -- a state looming as crucial to their presidential hopes.
Regarded by both parties as a pivotal swing state in the general election, Florida has also seen its primary rise in importance in recent days given an unpredictable contest that has produced three different winners in three different states: Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire and Gingrich in South Carolina.
The winner in Florida will get all of the state’s 50 convention delegates and momentum leading into a group of primaries and caucuses in February that lead up to “Super Tuesday” on March 6, when 10 states vote.
Gingrich and Romney have been competing intensely in recent days for the loyalties of Hispanic voters, who comprise roughly a tenth of registered Republicans in Florida. Their rivalry has sparked a contentious debate within the party over how to address the issue of illegal immigration.
Romney accused Gingrich in November of favoring “amnesty” when the former Georgia congressman proposed permitting some law-abiding, English-speaking illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for an extended period and have civic and religious ties in their communities to remain in the U.S. and seek legal status.
“You have to be realistic in your indignation” about illegal immigration, Gingrich said last night. “I am prepared to be very tough and very bold, but I’m also prepared to be realistic” about what could pass Congress.
“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney responded, to applause from the debate audience. “Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants would like to have.”
The debate, the 19th of the Republican presidential contest and the last for at least a month, took place as polls have shown a tight race between Romney and Gingrich in Florida. Separate surveys by CNN/Time/ORC and the Hamden, Connecticut- based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute had Romney drawing 36 percent to Gingrich’s 34 percent. Santorum and Paul trailed far behind.
During last night’s debate, Gingrich said he was “vastly closer” to former President Ronald Reagan, a party icon, than was Romney, who he said was voting for and donating to Democratic politicians in the 1990s as Gingrich was helping orchestrate the Republican resurgence in Congress.
“There’s a pretty wide gap,” Gingrich said. He added that for “those of us who were in the trenches fighting” for the Republican cause decades ago, ”it would be nice to be recognized for what we actually did, and not to have orchestrated attacks to try to distort the history of that period.”
Romney, as in previous debates, criticized Gingrich for being paid at least $1.6 million, after he left Congress, in consulting fees from the government-backed home mortgage company Freddie Mac.
“We should have had a whistleblower and not a horn- tooter,” at the company, Romney said.
The issue is a potent one in Florida, which ranks seventh in the U.S. in the rate of foreclosure filings per household. Republicans blame Freddie Mac and its sister company Fannie Mae for the housing bust that precipitated the financial meltdown.
“The governor has cheerfully been attacking me inaccurately, and he knows it” Gingrich fired back.
Romney later gave an energetic defense of his own wealth, estimated in his financial disclosure statements to be as much as $250 million. He criticized Gingrich for having said in a television interview that the former governor “lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.”
“I think it’s important for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there’s something wrong with being successful,” Romney said. “I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful.”
The exchanges led Santorum to scold Romney and Gingrich for “distracting from the most important issues we have,” and “playing petty personal politics.”
Santorum also attacked both Romney and Gingrich for past support for mandating that all individuals have health insurance, a key element of the health-care overhaul President Barack Obama signed into law last year.
“They didn’t always say what they’re saying” now in opposing the mandate, Santorum said. “It does not provide the contrast we need with Barack Obama.”
Paul posed his signature challenge to Republican Party orthodoxy by suggesting the U.S. yank troops from the Middle East and focus on security at home.
“I think we spend way too much time worrying about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Use some of those resources on our own border,” he said.
Gingrich drew fire from other candidates for his proposal to create a base on the moon. Romney accused him of pandering to voters in Florida, which has a number of businesses tied to space exploration. Romney said it’s too expensive and he would fire an executive who came to him with that idea.
“It may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea,” Romney said.
--With assistance from Jonathan D. Salant and Lisa Lerer in Jacksonville, Florida. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporters on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Jacksonville at firstname.lastname@example.org; Kristin Jensen in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at firstname.lastname@example.org