JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney pummeled Newt Gingrich repeatedly in a fierce war of words Thursday, striving to capitalize on a turn in the polls in the final debate before Florida's presidential primary on Tuesday.
Romney slammed a Gingrich ad on immigration as “repulsive,” criticized him as a hired cheerleader for troubled housing agency Freddie Mac, and ridiculed his proposal to colonize the moon.
Gingrich shot back, at one point noting acidly that Romney profited from firms foreclosing on Florida homeowners. But a shot at the media, normally a winning move for Gingrich, may not have worked as well this time.
They clashed as the latest polls signal a volatile race. The Rasmussen Poll reported Thursday that Romney is surging in Florida, much as Gingrich surged a week ago in South Carolina. “Now, in Florida, it’s Romney’s turn,” Rasmussen said Thursday.
While the attacks and counter-attacks continue to move Republican votes, one rival chided them Thursday for the personal nature of their sniping.
“These two gentlemen ... have been playing petty personal politics,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
“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?” Santorum pleaded. “Focus on the issues.”
The audience applauded. The candidates largely ignored his plea, although Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, consistently stuck to his stands on issues and avoided getting drawn into the Romney-Gingrich disputes.
In an opening salvo, Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, jumped on Gingrich for airing an ad accusing Romney of being anti-immigrant.
"That's simply inexcusable. That's inexcusable," a clearly angry Romney protested. “I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife's father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that."
He kept scolding Gingrich, calling his comments "simply the kind of over the top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long," Romney said.
Asked about the housing crisis, which hit Florida worse than most states, Romney criticized Gingrich for working for troubled housing agency Freddie Mac as a consultant instead of warning the country of its problems and potential contribution to the nation’s coming housing crisis.
“Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them,” Romney said. “We should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter.”
Gingrich shot back that Romney owned shares in and profited from Fannie Mae and Goldman Sachs, which he said continues to play a role in foreclosing on homeowners in Florida and across the country.
“So maybe Gov. Romney ... should tell us how much money he's made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments?” Gingrich said.
Romney responded that his investments are made by a trustee without his knowledge to avoid conflicts of interest, and that those investments are in mutual funds that held shares of Freddie Mac.
“Have you checked your own investments?” he challenged Gingrich. “You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
The two clashed as well over space exploration, a top issue on Florida’s “space coast,” where cutbacks have hit Cape Canaveral.
Gingrich defended his proposal to colonize the moon.
“I do not want to be the country that, having gotten to the moon first, turned around and said, it doesn't really matter, let the Chinese dominate space, what do we care?” Gingrich said. “I am for America being a great country, not a country in decline.”
Romney said the moon-colony proposal would never pass muster in the private sector. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, `You're fired.’"
Worse, he said, the promise symbolizes an approach the country cannot afford.
“This idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now,” Romney said. “We've got to say no to this kind of spending.”
Gingrich lashed out at the media at one point, a tactic that’s paid off in past debates but may not have worked this time. He reacted angrily when moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked him about his criticism this week of Romney’s use of a Swiss bank account for one of his personal investments.
“This is a nonsense issue,” Gingrich said to Blitzer.
“You made a serious accusation,” Blitzer responded. "You need to explain that.”
Gingrich tried to brush it off, saying he made his criticism in a TV interview and that this was a different venue as a debate. But Romney jumped in, saying it would be “nice” if people would say the same things face to face on stage as they say from a distance.
On immigration, Romney drew loud cheers from the crowd at North Florida University as he tore into Gingrich.
Gingrich would not back down, challenging Romney's call for "self-deportation" of illegal immigrants. Such a policy, Gingrich said, would mean deporting grandparents who have been here for years and sunk deep roots into communities.
"You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family — just tell me the language," he urged.
Romney was firm.
"What I said was people who come here legally (should) get a work permit. People who do not come here legally do not get a work permit ... I'm not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them," Romney insisted. "I am pro-immigrant ... I want them to come legally."
Gingrich would not relent.
"All I want to do is allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights to have residency but not citizenship so he or she can finish their life with dignity within the letter of the law," he said.
Romney looked stern and fired right back. "You know," he said. "our problem is not with 11 million grandmothers."
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