Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida reports: The GOP presidential primary moved to Florida in full force Monday night, with the four remaining candidates clashing on electability, the housing market and space issues in a debate in Tampa with the state’s vote a little more than a week away.
The candidates largely agreed on a slate of Florida-specific issues they were asked about, but only after a sharp exchange at the beginning of the debate about who would be best to take on President Barack Obama in the general election.
In the most-anticipated clash of the night, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia fought over whose lingering issues might hurt him most against Obama.
Romney tried once again to deflect questions about his decision to wait until Tuesday to release his tax return for 2011. Romney has not specified how many earlier years he might release or when he might do so. Romney promised there would be no surprises when the documents were release.
“The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people,” Romney said.
Gingrich, meanwhile, brushed off Romney’s attacks on his work for government-sponsored mortgage giant Freddie Mac — with Romney having suggested that Gingrich was involved in influence-peddling, claims Gingrich said were false.
“You have been walking around this state saying things that are not true,” Gingrich said.
But Romney mocked Gingrich’s claim that he was working for Freddie Mac as an historian.
“They don’t pay people $25,000 a month for six years as an historian,” Romney said.
Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania tried to explain why he would remain a strong candidate in spite of soundly losing a re-election bid in 2006 — noting that the national and state climates were hostile to the GOP that year and suggesting he would be a stronger conservative than either of the front-runners.
“There’s one thing worse than losing an election and that’s not standing for the principles you hold,” Santorum said.
Aside from Freddie Mac, most of the housing talk at the debate focused on how involved the government should be in trying to stabilize the market. Romney, who had argued last year that the government should “let [the foreclosure process] run its course and hit the bottom” emphasized trying to help homeowners on Monday night. But he also stood by his largely non-interventionist message.
“You have to get government out of the mess,” Romney said. “It created the mess.”
Romney and Gingrich agreed on what they said was the need to repeal the financial reform bill signed by Obama in 2010. Santorum said homeowners should be allowed to claim the losses on the sale of a home as a tax deduction. Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, whose strongly libertarian campaign has outlasted several more conventional candidates, pushed to allow the markets to work toward spurring home sales.
“You want the prices to go down so that people will start buying them again,” Paul said.
Romney, who spent part of his time hammering Obama for having failed Florida as the state’s unemployment rate spiked above 10 percent and its housing market continued to sink, also knocked the president on his policies regarding space exploration, a vital industry for the state.
“What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA,” Romney said.
Gingrich, whose interest in space often draws derision from his critics, pushed for government to focus on giving incentives or prizes to private companies who reach certain goals.
“There’s a whole series of things you can do that are dynamic that are better than just more government bureaucracy,” he said.
The candidates also largely agreed on trying to roll back sugar subsidies, pushing English as the official language and abhorring the Communist regime in Cuba.
Democrats, watching from the sidelines, knocked the debate as little more than an extended bout of pandering.
“This isn’t a race to the White House, it’s a race to the right. … This field has made clear they want to continue with giveaways to millionaires and billionaires at the expense of Florida’s middle class families,” Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith said in a statement issued moments after the forum ended.
The candidates will meet again Thursday in Jacksonville in the final vote before Floridians head to the polls.