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Romney, Gingrich Exchange Barbs on Immigration

By: David Espo, Associated Press
By: David Espo, Associated Press

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - Newt Gingrich cast Mitt Romney as the most anti-immigrant candidate of the four contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in campaign debate Thursday night in Hispanic-heavy Florida. "That's simply inexcusable," the former Massachusetts governor shot back, heatedly denying the accusation.

Romney quickly added that Gingrich's campaign had stopped running a radio ad that made the "anti-immigrant charge" after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called on him to do so. Romney said to Gingrich concerning the ad, "I think you should apologize for it."

The exchange came near the beginning of the second debate in four days in advance of next Tuesday's Florida primary. Opinion polls make the race a close one, with two other contenders, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, trailing far behind.

But Santorum drew applause from the audience when he called on the two front-runners to stop attacking one another and "focus on the issues."

"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress ... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he said in a tone of exasperation.

That seemed unlikely, given the stakes in the primary now five days distant.

Gingrich picked up on the theme quickly, calling on moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN to let the four candidates discuss the issues.

The audience booed, as if in agreement with Gingrich, but Romney jumped in, saying, "Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here."

Moments earlier, Romney and Gingrich had exchanged jabs over investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage giants that played a role in the national foreclosure crisis that has hit Florida particularly hard.

Gingrich said Romney was making money from investments in funds that were "foreclosing on Floridians."

Romney quickly noted that Gingrich, too, was invested in mutual funds with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He then added that the former House speaker "was a spokesman" for the two. That was a reference to a contract that one of Gingrich's businesses had for consulting services. The firm was paid $300,000 in 2006.

There were some moments of levity, including when Paul, 76, was asked whether he would be willing to release his medical records.

He said he was, then challenged the other three men on the debate stage to a 25-mile bike race.

He got no takers.

Romney and Gingrich had clashed repeatedly in the first debate of the week, held Monday in Tampa.

Gingrich's unexpected victory in the South Carolina primary last weekend upended the race to pick a Republican opponent for Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall, and Romney can ill afford another setback.

In the days since his loss, he has tried to seize the initiative, playing the aggressor in the Tampa debate and assailing Gingrich in campaign speeches and a TV commercial.

An outside group formed to support Romney has spent more than his own campaign's millions on ads, some of them designed to stop Gingrich's campaign momentum before it is too late to deny him the nomination.

Gingrich's performance in a pair of South Carolina debates are generally believed to have helped him to his victory there, and Romney's aides have expressed concern that the debate audience might benefit the former House speaker.

The issue was clearly on Romney's mind as he campaigned at a factory several hours before the debate began.

"There may be some give and take. That's always entertaining," he said. "If you all could get in there we'd love to see you all there cheering."

A voice from the audience responded that there were no more tickets, and Romney replied: `No tickets? Just storm in."

Gingrich seemed far less confident as he campaigned his way into the debate.

He unleashed an attack reminiscent of his rhetoric a month ago when he was being outspent heavily on television and falling sharply in the polls just before the Iowa caucuses.

He accused Romney and Restore Our Future, the independent group, of dishonest ads, and said, "This is the desperate last stand of the old order. This is the kind of gall they have, to think we're so stupid and we're so timid."

He later told reporters he decided to sharpen his criticisms after Romney released his tax returns. "Here's a guy who owns Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae stock," Gingrich said. "He owns a Goldman Sachs subsidiary, which is foreclosing on Floridians. And on that front he decides to lie about my career? There's something about the hypocrisy that should make every American angry."

Romney released his income tax returns for 2010 and an estimate for 2011 after declining to do so in South Carolina.

Gingrich, also under pressure, disclosed the consulting contract one of his firms had with Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant that played a role in the foreclosure crisis that hit Florida especially hard. It showed payments of $300,000 in 2006 for unspecified consulting services.

Romney has pummeled Gingrich in the days since, calling him an influence peddler and a lobbyist who was taking money from the very organization that was harming Floridians.

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Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Kasie Hunt contributed to this story.

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Gingrich, Romney Attack Each Other on Foreclosures

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - Rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are trading barbs over their income from mortgage firms Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

In Thursday's debate in Florida, Gingrich criticized Romney's investment in mutual funds that included the lenders, as well as Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs.

Gingrich says Romney is profiting from home foreclosures that plague Florida, and he's asking how much of Romney's personal fortune came from those foreclosures.

Romney defends the investments, saying his blind trust handles his finances and that Gingrich himself owns mutual funds that also invest in the quasi-government lenders.

Romney also is criticizing Gingrich for his paychecks as a consultant to the lender that some blame for the housing crisis.

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'Moon Colony' Prompts Galactic Clash in GOP Debate

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - Newt Gingrich wants America to establish a colony on the moon. Mitt Romney says it's not worth the enormous cost.

The GOP presidential debate turned to space Thursday night as the candidates were asked about Gingrich's call for developing a permanent lunar presence as a way to invigorate a key Florida industry.

Gingrich says NASA should offer prize incentives to businesses that develop commercial flight to the moon and beyond. He holds up that idea as an example of bold thinking.

But Romney chalks it up as pandering to local concerns over national interests. He says that if a business subordinate brought the space idea to him he'd fire him.

Texas congressman Ron Paul drew laughs when he said the people he'd send to the moon are politicians.

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Gingrich Reiterates Palestinians 'Invented' People

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - Newt Gingrich is defending himself after a questioner at the GOP presidential debate criticized him for calling Palestinians an invented people.

A questioner of Palestinian descent asked Gingrich how he could say Palestinians are "invented."

Gingrich answered by reiterating his stance, saying that Palestinians were, in fact, invented in the 1970s. He says before that they were simply identified as Arabs.

Gingrich is also making it clear he is a strong supporter of Israel. He says that President Barack Obama has not stood up in support of Israel amid ongoing tension with Palestinians. Gingrich says he would be a steadfast supporter of Israel.

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Gingrich: Use Reagan Approach for Post-Castro Cuba

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - Republican presidential hopefuls are casting President Barack Obama as a failure on Cuba and say they would do a better job ushering freedom into the nation after Castro.

Newt Gingrich said during Thursday night's debate that the United States should use the same tactics President Ronald Reagan employed to bring down the Soviet Union. Gingrich says the U.S. policy should be to connect with young Cubans to persuade them that they want freedom for their generation.

Mitt Romney says he would use economic pressure to bring about freedom for the island nation 90 miles off Florida. Rick Santorum says Obama's policies to ease restrictions on Cuba are "the exact wrong message at the exact wrong time."

Ron Paul alone says the United States should engage Cuba now to ease tensions.

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Romney is the Aggressor in Final Florida Debate

Jacksonville, FL (AP) - An aggressive Mitt Romney repeatedly challenged Republican rival Newt Gingrich Thursday night in the final debate before next week's critical Florida primary, demanding an apology for an ad saying he harbors anti-immigrant sentiments and ridiculing the former House speaker's call to colonize the moon.

"If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, `You're fired,'" Romney declared. That was just one particularly heated clash between two rivals struggling for supremacy in the race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama in the fall.

Gingrich responded heatedly. "You don't just have to be cheap everywhere. You can actually have priorities to get things done." He said that as speaker of the House he had helped balance the budget while doubling spending on the National Institutes of health.

The debate was the 19th since the race for the Republican nomination began last year, and the second in four days in the run-up to Tuesday's Florida primary. Opinion polls make the race a close one - slight advantage Romney - with two other contenders, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind.

Gingrich's upset victory in the South Carolina primary last week upended the race for the nomination, and Romney in particular can ill-afford a defeat on Tuesday.

While the clashes between Gingrich and Romney dominated the debate, Santorum drew applause from the audience when he called on the two front-runners to stop attacking one another and "focus on the issues."

"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress ... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he said in a tone of exasperation.

There were some moments of levity, including when Paul, 76, was asked whether he would be willing to release his medical records. He said he was, then challenged the other three men on the debate stage to a 25-mile bike race.

He got no takers.

In the days since Romney's loss in South Carolina, he has tried to seize the initiative, playing the aggressor in the Tampa debate and assailing Gingrich in campaign speeches and a TV commercial.

An outside group formed to support Romney has spent more than his own campaign's millions on ads, some of them designed to stop Gingrich's campaign momentum before it is too late to deny him the nomination.

With polls suggesting his South Carolina surge is stalling, Gingrich unleashed a particularly strong attack earlier in the day, much as he lashed out in Iowa when he rose in the polls, only to be knocked back by an onslaught of ads he was unable to counter effectively.

Thursday night's first clash occurred moments after the debate opened, when Gingrich responded to a question by saying Romney was the most anti-immigrant of all four contenders on stage. "That's simply inexcusable," the former Massachusetts governor responded.

"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant, my father was born in Mexico," Romney declared. "I'm not anti-immigrant."

At the same time, Romney noted that Gingrich's campaign had been pressured to stop running a radio ad that called Romney anti-immigrant after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called on Gingrich to do so.

He called on Gingrich to apologize for the commercial, but got no commitment.

About an hour later, Romney pounced when the topic turned to Gingrich's proposal for an permanent American colony on the moon - an issue of particular interest to engineers and others who live on Florida's famed Space Coast.

A career businessman before he became a politician, Romney said: "If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, `You're fired.'"

The audience erupted in cheers, but Romney wasn't finished.

He said the former speaker had called for construction of a new Interstate highway in South Carolina, a new VA hospital in northern New Hampshire and widening the port of Jacksonville to accommodate the larger ships that will soon be able to transit the Panama Canal.

"This idea of going state to state and promising people what they want to hear, promising hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into trouble in the first place," Romney said.

Gingrich responded that part of campaigning is becoming familiar with local issues, adding, "The port of Jacksonville is going to have to be expanded. I think that's an important thing for a president to know." He went on to refer to completion of an Everglades project that he did not describe, then noted he had worked to expand NIH while he was speaker.

Gingrich raised questions about Romney's wealth and his investments. "I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account," Gingrich said. Romney replied that his investments were in a blind trust over which he had no control. "There's nothing wrong with that," declared Romney, who has estimated his wealth at as much as $250 million.

Earlier Thursday, it was disclosed that Romney and his wife, Ann Romney, failed to list an unknown amount of investment income from a variety of sources including a Swiss bank account on financial disclosure forms filed last year. His campaign said it was working to correct the omissions.

Gingrich also failed to report income from his 2010 tax return on his financial disclosure. The former Georgia congressman will amend his disclosure to show $252,500 in salary from one of his businesses, spokesman R.C. Hammond said.

Debating in a state with a large and influential Jewish population, Romney and Gingrich vied to stress their support for Israel rather than criticize one another.

And all four men were quick to name prominent officials of Hispanic descent who deserved consideration for the Cabinet. Gingrich trumped the other three, saying, "I've actually thought of Marco Rubio in a slightly more dignified and central role," an evident reference to the vice presidential spot on the ticket.

Immigration was a recurring theme.

Gingrich said Romney was misleading when he ran an ad accusing the former House speaker of once referring to Spanish as "the language of the ghetto." Gingrich claimed he was referring to a multitude of languages, not just Spanish.

Romney initially said, "I doubt it's mine," but moderator Wolf Blitzer read it aloud and pointed out that Romney, at the ad's conclusion, says he approved the message.

As for immigration policy, it was difficult to discern their differences.

Both men said they want to clamp down in illegal immigration, create programs to make sure jobs go only to legal immigrants and deport some of the 11 million men and women in the country unlawfully.

Gingrich has never said how many illegal residents he believes should be deported, preferring to say that the United States is not going to begin rounding up grandmothers and grandfathers who have lived in the United States for years.

Romney agreed that was the case - and Gingrich said that marked a switch in position.

"Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Romney said. "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants would like to have."

Romney and Gingrich also exchanged jabs over investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two mortgage giants that played a role in the national foreclosure crisis that has hit Florida particularly hard.

Gingrich said Romney was making money from investments in funds that were "foreclosing on Floridians."

Romney quickly noted that Gingrich, too, was invested in mutual funds with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He then added that the former House speaker "was a spokesman" for the two. That was a reference to a contract that one of Gingrich's businesses had for consulting services. The firm was paid $300,000 in 2006.

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Associated Press writers Brian Bakst, Kasie Hunt and Steve Peoples contributed to this story.


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