Rivals Clash in Final Florida Debate

BY Christina Bellantoni and Terence Burlij  January 27, 2012 at 9:17 AM EST

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney debate in Florida; photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Newt Gingrich, left, and Mitt Romney spar during Thursday night’s debate in Florida. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

The Morning Line

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich clashed early and often during Thursday night’s debate in Jacksonville, a reflection of Florida’s importance to their hopes of claiming the Republican presidential nomination.

After suffering a lopsided defeat in South Carolina and seeing his victory in Iowa rescinded, Romney entered the Sunshine State looking to reclaim the momentum that had swung to Gingrich. The former Massachusetts governor brought that sense of urgency to Thursday night’s encounter, just as he had to the debate in Tampa earlier this week.

At a Tea Party rally in Mount Dora, Fla., earlier Thursday, Gingrich blasted Romney’s personal finances, declaring that Republicans would not be able to defeat President Obama with “some guy who has Swiss bank accounts [and] Cayman Island accounts.” (Click here to watch the NewsHour’s recap of the day’s events.)

But when asked at the debate by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer if he was satisfied with the level of transparency in Romney’s tax returns released earlier this week, Gingrich responded that it was a “nonsense question.”

Blitzer pushed back, noting that Gingrich was the one who leveled the charge, to which the former House speaker responded, “I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show, but this is a national debate where have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues,” Gingrich said.

Sensing an opening, Romney stepped in and asked, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?”

Romney also charged it was “repulsive” for Gingrich to label him “the most anti-immigrant” candidate in the field. “Don’t use a term like that,” Romney scolded. “You can say we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally…that that’s somehow anti-immigrant, is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long.”

Even though he pulled the advertisement from the airwaves earlier this week, Gingrich did not back down from the charge. “You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family,” Gingrich said.

“I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them. Those are your words, not my words,” Romney shot back. “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.”

One blemish in Romney’s otherwise solid debate performance came when he was asked to defend a Spanish-language ad that attacks Gingrich for calling Spanish “the language of the ghetto.” Romney said he doubted the ad was his, but minutes later was corrected by Blitzer.

(Team Romney sent out a fact check within moments that included a Politifact story with the partial quote. Gingrich did not specifically say Spanish was the language of the ghetto, but he had felt the need to apologize the following week in a web video he recorded — in Spanish. Watch the original quote and the apology here.)

Romney also targeted Gingrich’s consulting work for the government sponsored mortgage giant Freddie Mac, accusing him of encouraging the lender’s practices instead of warning others about the housing crisis. “We should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter,” Romney jabbed.

Gingrich, in response, took aim at Romney’s tax returns, which the former business executive released earlier this week after resisting calls for weeks to do so. “We discovered, to our shock, Gov. Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gov. Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that,” Gingrich said. “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.”

Romney noted that his investments for the last decade have been handled through a blind trust. He added that his investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were through mutual funds, not stocks.

“Have you checked your own investments?” Romney pressed Gingrich. “You also have investments for mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Gingrich said comparing his investments to Romney’s was “like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant.”

Rick Santorum, who is running a distant third in Florida, called on the two front-runners to stop drawing attention away from the issues by “playing petty personal politics.”

“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 — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard?” the former Pennsylvania senator asked.

Another effective moment for Santorum came when he challenged Romney to defend the Massachusetts health care law he signed as governor, a policy similar to the national overhaul enacted by President Obama.

“What Gov. Romney just said is that government-run, top-down medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts, and he supports it,” Santorum said.

As Santorum continued to press his case, Romney seemed to grow increasingly displeased, at one point telling the former senator, “It’s not worth getting angry about.”

Texas Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, delivered some of the best one-liners of the evening, warning Blitzer about potential age discrimination when the moderator asked the 76-year-old congressman if he planned to release his medical records.

Paul said he would, saying it was “about one page,” and proceeded to challenge his fellow GOP rivals “to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day in the heat of Texas.”

(Associated Press reporter Steve Peoples saw Paul in action on two wheels this summer.)

Another zinger from Paul came during a discussion about Gingrich’s proposal to build a colony on the moon by 2020. “I don’t think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there at times,” he said.

As was evidenced by the exit polls in South Carolina, debates can make a difference. Unlike in the Palmetto State, however, Romney seemed to get the better of Gingrich in the two Florida encounters. We’ll find out Tuesday if the voters agreed.

FLORIDA FUN TIMES

Half of your dynamic duo is typing out the Morning Line from the Hispanic Leadership Network’s Inspiring Action Conference in Miami. Both Gingrich and Romney are expected to speak, and Santorum will address the Latin Builders Association in Miami this afternoon.

Fred Malek, founder and board member of the American Action Network, said he thought Thursday’s debate, which HLN piped into the conference for a watch party, “was off the charts.”

“It expressed to America, to our candidates, to the next president of the United States who was amongst those candidates that Americans of Hispanic descent have a major rising leading voice in this election in this country,” Malek told the crowd here before introducing GOP Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Judy Woodruff, on the ground in Jacksonville, looked at the difference between Florida and Iowa in a column online. “[T]he contest in the Sunshine State has scaled up. Crowds are bigger, they’re energized, and you don’t run into people who’ve had a personal conversation with every candidate in the race,” Judy writes.

Follow our team as we crisscross the Sunshine State: @judywoodruff, @merrillnewshour, @quinnbowman and @cbellantoni

Live in Florida? Have something to say? Get in touch for our next Google Hangout by emailing cbellantoni@newshour.org

Santorum told Fox News Friday that he’s only headed to Virginia for a quick break so he can get his taxes to provide to the press. He said he’ll be right back to the Sunshine State. “I’ve spent every minute here in Florida,” he said.

READY TO LAUNCH?

The pro-Gingrich Winning Our Future super PAC has posted three 60-second videos to its YouTube page over the last two days, an indicator that at least one of those is about to hit the airwaves and that the group will fulfill its pledge to spend millions in Florida. Earlier this week, Winning Our Future had spent less than $300,000 in the state.

Here’s the toughest video: LINK

Amy Walter at ABC News has an alternate take on super PAC spending, writing that voters upset by the flood of ads shouldn’t blame Citizens United.

OBAMA VS. CONGRESS

As for the man the GOP candidates are hoping to unseat, he’s chosen a different target: Congress.

On Thursday, NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman examined President Obama’s strategy of running against Congress.

2012 LINE ITEMS

  • A new Quinnipiac poll of Florida voters finds Romney leading Gingrich 38 percent to 29 percent.

  • Fred Schulte and Joe Eaton have an iWatch investigation detailing that Gingrich’s advocacy on behalf of a broad array of health care interests has been far more extensive than he has acknowledged. Though his Center for Health Transformation bills itself as a think tank, it “has taken an active role in circulating policy papers, testifying at congressional hearings and using other forums to build support for dozens of pieces of legislation and federal policy initiatives that would financially benefit clients who paid as much as $200,000 a year for his services, records show. The center’s advocacy has ranged from promoting costly high- technology medicine to pressing for tax breaks benefiting purchasers of controversial high-deductible insurance plans. Gingrich severed ties with the center last year,” they write.

  • CNN’s Peter Hamby (@peterhambycnn) reported on Twitter that so far the latest count of absentee and early ballots cast in Florida was 406,163.

TOP TWEETS

(It’s to kick off a new campaign by the left-leaning group Presente Action, which wants to target Rubio on the DREAM Act, among other things.)

OUTSIDE THE LINES

  • Retiring Democratic Rep. Barney Frank announced he will marry his longtime partner Jim Ready in Massachusetts. They have not yet set a date.

  • The Austin American-Statesman’s Chuck Lindell reports: Texas taxpayers were billed almost $800,000 in travel costs for a security detail to travel with Gov. Rick Perry, largely on out-of-state events tied to his presidential campaign from September through November, state figures show.

  • An IRS report shows that 36 executive office staff at the White House owe $833,970 in back taxes. That’s part of the IRS’ 2010 agency report on federal employees’ tax compliance. It also found that thousands of federal employees owe the country more than $3.4 billion in back taxes. That’s up 3 percent in the past year, writes Andrew Malcolm at Investors.com.

  • The Tennessean posts the airport video of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., being held by TSA earlier this week. The newspaper concludes he was not “irate” as the government had suggested. But the Morning Line cautions that the video doesn’t show Paul’s face, so it’s difficult to take such a definitive stance.

  • In a Union Leader op-ed, former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman argues that the GOP should advocate for gay marriage.

  • The president won’t pick sides in the New York Giants vs. New England Patriots Super Bowl in an interview with Diane Sawyer.

  • Soon after Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., announced he would not seek a sixth term, followed by Gov. Bev Perdue’s decision against seeking re-election, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee started polling its 23,000 North Carolina members on whether Miller should run for governor.

A PCCC source told the Morning Line that 97 percent of the people responding want Miller to jump in. If Miller were to run to replace Perdue, he would have to act quickly as the gubernatorial primary will be held this May.

NewsHour politics desk assistant Alex Bruns contributed to this report.

ON THE TRAIL

All events are listed in Eastern Time.

  • Newt Gingrich speaks at the Latin Builders Association conference in Miami at 9 a.m., delivers remarks to the Hispanic Leadership Network in Miami at 10:15 a.m. and attends a Republican Jewish Coalition rally in Delray Beach at 3:30 p.m.

  • Mitt Romney addresses the Hispanic Leadership Network lunch in Miami at 12:10 p.m., attends a campaign event in Titusville at 4:45 p.m. and holds a rally in Orlando at 7:25 p.m.

  • Rick Santorum speaks at the Latin Builders Association conference in Miami at 1:30 p.m. and holds a media availability in West Chester, Pa., at 6 p.m.

  • Ron Paul campaigns in Maine, with three town halls: in Bangor at 10 a.m., Waterville at 2 p.m. and Lewiston at 7 p.m.

All future events can be found on our Political Calendar:


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Follow the politics team on Twitter: @cbellantoni, @burlij, @elizsummers, @quinnbowman.