By Carmen Russell-Sluchansky
The remaining four contenders for the 2012 presidential primary nomination faced off for the last time before Floridians go to the polls on Tuesday. Despite it being the 19th such debate, it was a key event for former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in what has become a two-man race.
Gingrich and Romney came out of the door swinging and the debate largely became a battle between the two frontrunners.
The first question in the CNN-hosted debate came from an audience member who asked about illegal immigration which has become a theme in the race this week. It is fitting given the size of Florida’s immigrant community, but also because of recent attacks by the Gingrich campaign calling Mitt Romney “anti-immigrant.”
In the exchange that followed, Romney said “I’m not anti-immigrant. 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.”
If Romney wanted an apology, he didn’t get one and Gingrich only escalated the attack.
“You tell me what language you would use to describe someone who thinks that deporting a grandmother or grandfather from their family… just tell me what language you would use,” Gingrich said.
However, Florida Senator Marco Rubio had earlier in the day voiced his objections to Gingrich’s campaign ad and it was pulled off the air. He told CBS This Morning that the tactic wasn’t good for the Republican party
“Whoever wins this nomination… is going to have to come back to Florida in the fall and win again,” he said. “I want to make sure that we don’t have candidates saying things that we’re going to have to come back and defend.”
Romney kept up his attack on Gingrich for working for Freddie Mac, the government supported mortgage giant, work for which Gingrich received around $1.5 million dollars for services. Gingrich, however, used information recently revealed that Mitt Romney had invested in Freddie Mac and Fannie May to the tune of a half million dollars.
“We discovered to our shock… that Governor Romney made a million dollars of selling some of that and [he] has shares in Goldman Sachs which is today foreclosing on Floridians,” he said.
Romney responded that he did not know where man of his investments went because they were handled by a blind trust .While Romney may have been risking further alienating himself from the voters as he has been known to do, he seemed more confident in his response and said he was not going to apologize for his success.
“There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds,” he said. “But, Mr. Speaker, have you checked your own investments? You also have investments in mutual funds that also have investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”
Before long, former US Senator Rick Santorum and Congressman Ron Paul stepped in, making an effort to stop the two opponents from bickering about their own wealth. Santorum suggested that one’s own success should be off limits.
“Governor Romney went out and worked hard,” he said. “Leave that alone and talk about the issues.”
And Ron Paul proposed a simple solution.
“The question is what are we going to do about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” he said. “[They] should have been auctioned off.”
If this was the most contentious of the debates so far, that’s because Florida could be do or die for the candidates in this unique primary race in which all the rules have been thrown out and the swing state may have even more say in who the Republican nominee will be. Additionally, the two candidates are in a statistical deadheat, with Newt Gingrich losing some steam after his South Carolina victory gave him a Florida bump.
The negativity in Florida is palpable and not just in the debate. In the airwaves attack ads dominate. In addition to the ad calling Romney anti-immigrant, a Romney ad took on Gingrich for a comment in which he referred to the “language of the ghetto.”
When Gingrich brought it up in the debate, however, Romney initially denied the ad, saying it probably wasn’t his own campaign’s. However, a quick fact check at the debate showed that it was, undermining Romney’s statement and leading to headlines..
Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota who dropped out of the race a few months ago, told the Voice of Russia that was the wrong story.
“I think the focus should be on did Newt say that or imply that,” he said. “Third party groups have looked at it and said that’s what he said.”
While Pawlenty endorsed Mitt Romney, former Congressman Bill McCollum who ran for Florida governor in the Republican primary, endorsed Newt Gingrich. After the debate he told the Voice of Russia that he thought Newt Gingrich handled the debate well.
“I thought he answered the questions just fine,” he said. “The anti-immigration thing, Romney rehearsed… but Newt’s immigration policy is sound.”
However, there were some lighter moments in the debate. When Wolf Blitzer noted that Ron Paul would be the oldest president if elected and asked if he would show his medical records, Ron Paul responded that he would challenge anyone on the stage to a 25 mile bike ride adding in jest,’ There are laws about age discrimination so you better be careful.”