GOP debate: Romney and Gingrich clash from the start

Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney clashed from the start of the GOP presidential debate Thursday night, arguing over illegal immigration and the former speaker's work at Freddie Mac.

Illegal immigration dominated the beginning of a debate, with the two arguing over rhetoric and approaches to dealing with approximately 11 million people who have entered the United States illegally.

Each of the four Republicans still in the presidential race were asked for their position on illegal immigration, but the conversation quickly became a tête-à-tête between the two frontrunners, who accused each other of offensive language and of failing to grasp what the nation must do to solve the problem.

“The grandmothers or grandfathers aren’t likely to self-deport,” Gingrich said, deploring the position Romney took in a Monday debate in Florida where he said that denied employment opportunities, illegal immigrants would voluntarily leave the country.

Asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer whether he still believed Romney was the most anti-immigrant presidential candidate, Gingrich said that of the four still left in the contest, the former Massachusetts governor did deserve that title.

“That’s inexcusable. Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico,” Romney said. “The idea I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”

Gingrich blasted Romney’s position that all those in the country illegally needed to leave, claiming that grandparents with long-standing connections to the country wouldn’t leave voluntarily even if employment opportunities were denied.

“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney said to raucous applause. “Our problem is 11 million people with jobs that Americans, legal immigrants would like to have.”

Ron Paul acknowledged that illegal immigration was a problem and suggested more resources for border security, but said those resources could be shifted from misdirected U.S. efforts to intervene on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And Rick Santorum agreed with Romney’s position that those in the country illegally would deport themselves without the ability to earn a living.

“Their first act when they come to this country is to disobey the law. It’s not a particularly welcome way to enter this country,” Santorum said.

But he also pointed out that illegal immigrants had not just broken the law once by entering the country without permission, but were continually flouting U.S. law by remaining in the country without approval to work.

“You’ve probably stolen somebody’s social security number illegally,” he said. All the presidential hopefuls are eager to court the large Hispanic vote in Florida ahead of Tuesday’s primary election. Hispanics represent the fastest growing voter bloc in the United States, and Florida has a larger swath of conservative Hispanics than any other state.

The next topic was just as rancous.

Romney and Gingrich clashed over two topics they have hit each other on before -- Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac and Romney's personal wealth.

The former Massachusetts governor has accused Gingrich of lobbying for Freddie Mac, which he repeated Thursday night. The former speaker denied being a lobbyist and turned to one of his favorite attack lines -- criticizing Romney's wealth.

"We began digging in after Monday night because frankly I'd had about enough of this. We discovered to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that," Gingrich said.

Romney defend himself, noting he owned government bonds -- not specific stock -- that were in a blind trust.

"I'll say it again. I have a trustee that manages my investments in a blind trust. That was so that I would avoid any conflicts of interest," Romney said.

But in 1994, when Romney was running for Senate against former Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), he said a blind trust didn't exonerate Kennedy from a no-bid deal where Kennedy's family trust purchased land from the government.

"It's a conflict of interest pure and simple, and it's wrong for a U.S. senator," the Romney said, according to the AP. "The fact that it's a blind trust does not hide it."

Romney also accused Gingrich on Thursday of also owning stock in the mortgage giants.

"Have you checked your own investments," Romney asked. "You also have investments in mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac."

Gingrich shot back that comparing his investments to Romney's was like comparing a "tiny mouse" to a "giant elephant."

-- This story was posted at 8:37 p.m. and has been updated.