Rancour as Gingrich and Romney spar in debate

 

Jacksonville, Florida

Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, learned to his cost last night that he is not alone among Republicans vying for the presidential nomination able to conjure righteous indignation when it matters.  Mitt Romney showed a debate audience here that he has quite the talent for it too.

Barely had the last debate before Florida’s primary vote on Tuesday got under way before Mr Romney was blow-torching Mr Gingrich for having called him the most “anti-immigrant” of the party’s runners for the 2012 nomination in a radio ad this week. It was an explosion that set the tone of a frequently rancorous encounter that on occasion left Mr Gingrich if not quite speechless then visibly buffeted.

“Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant,” Mr Romney began. “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.”   While Mr Gingrich had relented on Wednesday and taken the spot off the air, he had since stood by the central allegation that Mr Romney is against immigration and he tried again on the debate stage.

“That’s simply unexcusable,” Mr Romney said of the ad.  “That’s inexcusable.  And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.”

The exchange recalled the final debate in South Carolina a week ago when Mr Gingrich tore not into Mr Romney but the moderator for raising claims made by his second wife that he had asked her for an open marriage to accommodate his relationship with his mistress – and now wife – Calista Gingrich. His fury was seen by many to have clinched his double-digit victory in that states primary two days later.

With the battle in Florida has turned so much immigration policy in part because of the pressure to retain the support of Hispanics who make up almost one quarter of the state’s population.  Mr Romney is expected to get a major boost tonight at an event in Orlando that reportedly will feature an endorsement for his candidacy from the Governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno. Earlier today he will speech to a Hispanic Leadership conference in Miami.

As for the debates, if audiences tune out after the first twenty minutes or so then last night’s surely belonged to Mr Romney and that may produce the kind of bump he sorely needs to prevent another Gingrich victory in Florida next week.  But not everything went his way here, not least with news of a new Wall Street Journal-NBC poll showing him trailing Mr Gingrich nationally 28 per cent to 37 per cent.

Mr Romney endured a searing attack from Rick Santorum, the former Senator from Pennsylvania, over the similarities between the healthcare reforms he introduced as governor of Massachusetts and the main planks of President Barack Obama’s healthcare reform.  It also became clear that he was completely unaware of the existence of one his own attack spots against Mr Gingrich, also on the topic of immigration.

In a particularly intense back and forth between the two front-runners, Mr Gingrich pointed out that Mr Romney’s fortune come in tiny part from investments made in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, two intensely unpopular government-backed mortgage institutions that have been centre-stage in the race because the speaker earning $1.6 million doing consulting work for the former. But the charge backfired on Mr Gingrich.

A nimble Mr Romney shot straight back that his portfolio is in a blind trust and he does not know where his trustees are investing his money.  “There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds and Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Mr Gingrich, whose rise up the field after South Carolina has sent panic waves through the party establishment, also received incoming fire for suggesting in a speech this week that he would like a human colony on the moon within eight years, with money, he suggests, coming in part from private enterprise.

“The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea and we have seen in politics and Newt, you’ve been part of this, go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear,” Mr Romney contended.

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