Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida reports that rivals spent the 19th debate of the Republican primary cycle — and the final before Floridians head to the polls Tuesday — whaling on former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an attempt to finish off his post-South Carolina momentum.
Gingrich’s standing was already tottering in the latest batch of Florida polls after he rode a win in the Palmetto State to front-runner status. On Thursday night’s CNN debate, held at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Gingrich came under fire from all sides.
Even as the other candidates — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, still favored by many observers to win the GOP nomination; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; and Congressman Ron Paul — looked to knock Gingrich off his perch for national reasons, the debate had a Florida flair. Questions about space, immigration and Latin America and Cuba all played a role, as did the housing crisis that has hit Florida as hard as almost any other state in the nation.
Romney was more aggressive than usual — former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, who has endorsed Gingrich, conceded that Romney was “feisty” — as he sought to wrap up a state critical to his hopes of winning what has essentially been a five-year campaign for the presidency.
Supporters quickly crowed over what they called one of Romney’s finest debates.
“I thought tonight was the closing argument for Mitt Romney,” said Florida House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “I thought that he spoke with a passion and a conviction unlike, frankly, I’ve ever seen in a debate.”
Even Gingrich’s supporters were faint in their praise of the speaker.
“I don’t think it hurt him,” said former Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum. “I’m not so sure he had a home run here tonight to hit.”
But McCollum also questioned whether some of Gingrich’s opponents might have misplayed their hands, particularly in their criticisms of the former speaker’s ambitious plans for space exploration, a key industry in the state.
“Most of Florida really cares a lot about that program, and the nation should care about it,” McCollum said.
Gingrich began the night on defense on the issue of immigration, as Romney used an ad that labeled the former governor as “anti-immigrant” — based on his comments about illegal immigration — to tee off on his main rival.
“My father was born in Mexico,” Romney fumed at one point. “My wife’s father was born in Wales. … The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Gingrich countered Romney’s outrage with what he said was the difference between them — that Gingrich doesn’t favor deporting “grandmothers” who might be illegal immigrants but had spent years in the country.
“I am prepared to be very tough and very bold, but I’m also prepared to be realistic,” Gingrich said.
That brought a quip from Romney referencing the number of illegal immigrants: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.”
The candidates also clashed on Gingrich’s plan for a moon colony. Rivals said the plan was a budget-busting pander to Floridians at a time when most Republicans are concerned with slicing the nation’s budget deficit.
“And you can’t do that by grand schemes. … Those are things that sound good and maybe make big promises to people, but we’ve got to be responsible in the way we allocate our resources,” Santorum said.
Gingrich said his plan would focus heavily on incentives for the private sector and could work with in a restrained budget by finding cuts elsewhere.
“You don’t just have to be cheap everywhere,” he said. “You can actually have priorities to get things done.”
At times, Gingrich tried to launch attacks, responding to Romney’s repeated references to his work with government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac by pointing out that Romney had invested in Freddie Mac, sister organization Fannie Mae and banks involved in foreclosures in Florida.
“So maybe Governor 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?” Gingrich said.
But Romney forced Gingrich to concede that some of the speaker’s mutual funds were also invested in Freddie and Fannie.
Romney did not come out of the debate unscathed. Santorum used one section of the debate to hammer away at Romney on his signature health-care plan, similar to President Obama’s program — which is anathema to conservatives.
“We can’t give this issue away in this election,” Santorum pleaded. “It is about fundamental freedom.”
Paul spent much of the night blending contrarian answers with humor. Asked what he would do if Raul Castro — a bête noir for many of Florida’s Cubans — called the White House, Paul responded: “I’d ask him what he called about.”
He also took a far more conciliatory position to Cuba than many older Cuban-Americans in Miami would be comfortable with.
“Not to talk to them and take the call and see what you can work out helps Castro,” he said. “It hurts the people, the dissidents, the people who want to overthrow him have always had to be nationalistic and unified behind the leader.”
Rivals spent the 19th debate of the Republican primary cycle — and the final before Floridians head to the polls Tuesday — whaling on former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an attempt to finish off his post-South Carolina momentum.