Romney, Gingrich square off in key debate
Jacksonville - Republican White House hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich traded blows on immigration, space policy and wealth on Thursday in a feisty debate ahead of the all-important Florida primary.
Romney - once seen as the presumptive nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in November but now tied with Gingrich in the polls - came out swinging from the start, angrily dismissing suggestions he is anti-immigrant and dodging taxes.
"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive," Romney said, showing a flash of steel seldom seen in his campaign.
"It's simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that's characterised American politics too long," the former Massachusetts governor added to audience cheers.
"I think you should apologise for it and recognise that having differences of opinions does not justify labelling people with highly charged epithets."
Hispanic voting bloc
With a large Hispanic voting bloc, immigration has been high on the agenda in Florida.
Seeking to capitalise, Gingrich ridiculed Romney's proposal that illegal immigrants should willingly leave the country and re-apply for legal entry, stating, "I don't think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport."
Romney, who said his father was born in Mexico, and his father-in-law in Wales, angrily shot back: "I'm not going to find grandmothers and deport them. Those are your words. Not my words.
"You know, our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants would like to have."
The high stakes of the debate, just five days ahead of Tuesday's vote in the Sunshine State, were evident in the terse exchanges on almost every issue, and from the relative lack of discussion about Obama.
Such was the heat of early exchanges that Gingrich offered a truce: "How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we're going to talk about issues?"
The offer was quickly knocked down when Gingrich refused to answer for earlier comments about Romney's Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts or his finances.
Instead Romney, a multimillionaire businessman, went on the attack.
"Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to make here?" Romney asked rhetorically.
Romney also ripped Gingrich's plans to establish a permanent base on the moon, largely with private funding.
"It may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea," Romney said, suggesting that if a manager came to him with the idea, the manager would be fired.
Romney and Gingrich are duking it out after the race for the Republican presidential nomination took an unexpected turn in South Carolina, where the former House speaker won handily.
Each of the first three nominating contests had different winners - former senator Rick Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire and then Gingrich in South Carolina - upending the race as the candidates headed to Florida.
The Florida primary is a winner-takes-all race for 50 delegates - nearly the same offered in the three previous contests combined.
For Gingrich the Sunshine State is a virtual must-win, but the accomplished debater did not land the knockout blow he would have hoped for.
But there were frequent Gingrich jabs, notably on home foreclosures, a key issue in Florida, which was at the epicentre of the housing bubble.
"He has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is, today, foreclosing on Floridians," Gingrich said, addressing Romney.
"Maybe he should tell us how much money he's made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments."
A loss would leave Gingrich's bare-bones campaign with an uphill struggle to reach the 1 144 delegates needed to win the nomination - as the race opens out into multiple states in short order.
Santorum and the fourth contender left in the race, veteran Texas congressman Ron Paul, were left out of the debate for long periods but managed to win over the audience on a few occasions.
A poor showing for Romney on Tuesday would highlight his struggles to connect with the party's conservative base and dispatch his rivals.
After the debate, one-time candidate and now Romney supporter Tim Pawlenty said the former governor's sharper edge was warranted.
"Some of these things get the candidates pumped up, whether it is an issue that they care about or perhaps something that they feel unjustly attacked for, some indignation and some passion is a good thing," he told AFP.
"I think people want to see passion, commitment and strength and he certainly exhibited that tonight, and you've got to have more than one gear - you can't just be yelling and screaming all the time."
Romney's newfound edge is likely to please establishment Republicans who fear a Gingrich victory could help hand re-election to Obama in November.