Mitt Romney turned in his feistiest debate performance of the campaign Thursday night, hitting Newt Gingrich hard and repeatedly and flustering the former House Speaker.
Romney counterpunched effectively and seemed to catch Gingrich by surprise with his forceful responses. Gingrich, who rode debate success to victory in South Carolina, faltered. His performance will likely not be enough to help him reverse the momentum Romney has recaptured.
Gingrich needed to dominate the debate to help kick-start his flagging campaign in Florida, but didn't land any knock-out blows in the last GOP debate for nearly a month. Gingrich badly needs a win there and has fallen behind Romney in recent polls.
Romney was much better prepared for Gingrich’s attacks than in past debates. He got the best of the former House Speaker in an exchange over immigration, drawing cheers from the Republican audience for slamming Spanish-language ads Gingrich was running hitting Romney.
Gingrich’s ad said that Romney was the “most anti-immigrant” candidate in the race. He pulled the ad down after popular Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Dems attempt to tie government funding, Ida relief to debt limit Poll: Trump dominates 2024 Republican primary field MORE (R-Fla.) called it “inaccurate” and “inflammatory.”
After Gingrich half-heartedly defended the ad, Romney pounced.
“That's simply inexcusable. That's inexcusable. And, actually, Sen. Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate,” Romney said. “The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that … I'm glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. I'm glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets."
Gingrich leaned back a half-step, and as he began his reply was interrupted by strong applause for Romney. “I'll give you an opportunity to self-describe. You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family — just tell me the language," Gingrich said. "I'm perfectly happy for you to explain what language you'd use,” he said.
Romney pivoted hard, saying Gingrich was lying about his record and that he was strongly “pro-legal immigration.”
Florida has a large Hispanic population and many Cuban-Americans vote in the GOP primary. Immigration is not the top issue for most of those voters, but if a candidate comes off as anti-immigrant it is dangerous in the state. Romney has been very careful on his immigration rhetoric in recent weeks after striking a more hard-line tone earlier in the campaign.
The former Massachusetts governor did not escape the immigration portion of the debate unscathed, however.
Romney said he was unaware of a radio ad his campaign ran alleging that Gingrich called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.”
However, in the Spanish language ad currently running in South Florida, Romney says in Spanish, “I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this message.”
The former governor had effective counterpunches to Gingrich on owning stocks of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, a detail Gingrich used to show Romney was just as culpable on the issue as Gingrich, who consulted for the mortgage giants.
Gingrich’s statement that Romney “should tell us how much money he's made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments” drew a mix of cheers and boos from the audience. Romney pointed out that his money was invested in a blind trust and that Gingrich also owned stock, drawing whoops from the crowd.
Gingrich also swung and missed in trying to go after the media, a tactic that earned him a boost in South Carolina. CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer was better prepared to push back against him than John King or Juan Williams, whom Gingrich took to task in earlier debates.
After Gingrich brushed off a question from Blitzer about an attack he’d made on Romney earlier this week as a “nonsense question,” Blitzer persisted, pointing out that Gingrich himself had said that Romney “lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts” and said he needed to explain the “serious accusation” he’d made.
After Gingrich tried to brush off the question again, Romney jumped in. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else they aren’t willing to defend here?” he asked, drawing cheers.
Gingrich, caught flat-footed, tried once again to attack Romney on the issue, but to no avail.
Gingrich was also called out for one of his more grandiose proposals — he tried to defend a call from earlier in the week that he wanted an American colony on the moon. Rick Santorum hit him hard on the issue, arguing he was pandering to “win votes” in the state, which houses a large aerospace industry.
Romney also got in a shot. “I spent 25 years in business,” Romney said. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, 'you’re fired.' 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.”
The lunar colony wasn’t Santorum’s only solid moment. He turned in another strong debate, lecturing the two front-runners for their repeated attacks on each other.
"These two gentlemen are out distracting from the most important issues we have by playing petty personal politics," Santorum scolded. "Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies, and that's not the worst thing in the world, and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy who worked hard and he's going out and working hard? You guys should leave that alone."
He also pushed Romney and Gingrich hard on similarities between their healthcare reform positions and President Obama’s health insurance reforms, backing Romney into a defense of his Massachusetts healthcare reforms and the individual mandate.
Santorum has spent little time and less money in Florida and is unlikely to win there. Unless Gingrich collapses, it will be hard for him to regain the traction he had after his strong Iowa finish.
Ron Paul also had a strong debate, answering foreign policy questions without seeking to antagonize the Republican audience and showing a sense of humor throughout the night. He also delivered strong answers on the economy.
But, at the end of the debate, the audience chanted Romney’s name.
—Josh Lederman and Jonathan Easley contributed to this story.