Gingrich, Romney Spar Over Immigration, Money

The four Republican presidential candidates debated in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday night. It was the 19th debate of the GOP nominating season, and the last one before the state holds its primary on Tuesday.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. The Republican presidential candidates met one more time last night before Florida's primary.

Mitt Romney sharply questioned Newt Gingrich, the candidate who's put his own debating skills at the center of his candidacy. Romney lost South Carolina to Gingrich, then lost a lot of ground in Florida. But as the frontrunner applies vast amounts of money and organization, a Quinnipiac survey out this morning shows Romney back ahead.

That's the backdrop for last night's debate. And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, the televised tension suggests we may be close to the moment when more contestants are voted off the island.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: These debates have been described as reality television. If so, last night had the intensity of a season finale. You could hear it in the fracas over a hypothetical illegal grandmother seeking sanctuary in a church.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

NEWT GINGRICH: We're not going to walk in there and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out.

SHAPIRO: Newt Gingrich was the aggressor on this one, insisting that Mitt Romney is the most anti-immigrant candidate in the race. In a state with a big Spanish-speaking population, that charge can hurt. And Romney wouldn't have it. He called Gingrich's language inexcusable and he didn't stop there.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

MITT ROMNEY: Don't use a term like that. You can say we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration, as I approve, that that's somehow anti-immigrant is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long.

SHAPIRO: Romney turned and stared daggers into Gingrich, while Gingrich gazed out at the audience before he finally replied.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: 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. I'm perfectly happy for you to explain what language you'd use.

SHAPIRO: Romney said he wants to follow immigration law.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.

SHAPIRO: That line even got a laugh, as few Romney lines have in these debates. It was one of many moments suggesting that Romney had a new lease on his debate persona. He did bring on a new debate coach, former Liberty University coach Brett O'Donnell, in recent days.

Romney did stumble when CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked about an ad where he accused Gingrich of calling Spanish the language of the ghetto. Romney said he was not aware of the ad and it was probably made by an outside group. But a few minutes later, Blitzer circled back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

WOLF BLITZER: It was one of your ads. It's running here in Florida in - on the radio. And at the end you say, I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this ad. So it is - it is here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD NOISE)

ROMNEY: Let me ask a question. Let me ask the speaker a question. Did you say what the ad says or not? I don't know.

GINGRICH: It's taken totally out of context.

ROMNEY: Oh, OK, he said it.

GINGRICH: And I did not, I did not - no. I did not say it about Spanish. I said, in general, about all languages.

SHAPIRO: It is true, though, that after Gingrich made that statement in 2007, he apologized, in Spanish. Much of the evening was about who had made money from more dubious sources. Romney criticized Gingrich's work for housing giant Freddie Mac.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: We should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter. He should have stood up and said, look, these things are a disaster, this is a crisis.

SHAPIRO: For his part, Gingrich focused on the tax returns that Romney released this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

GINGRICH: 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. Governor Romney owns share – and has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians.

SHAPIRO: But when Romney got the mic back, he noted that Gingrich too had invested in Fannie and Freddie.

When Blitzer asked Ron Paul whether they should both return the money, Paul replied...

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RON PAUL: That subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Paul had lots of one-liners last night. But perhaps the biggest applause line came from a visibly frustrated Rick Santorum.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

RICK SANTORUM: Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that 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 because he worked hard and he's going out and working hard? And you guys should that alone and focus on the issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: At another point, Gingrich said he wants to put a base on the moon, which goes over well in a state that has lost thousands of NASA jobs. But Romney scoffed at the notion.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. 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.

SHAPIRO: He said this is a pattern for Gingrich.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

ROMNEY: We've seen politicians - and Newt, you've been part of this - going from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear.

SHAPIRO: Romney said that was what got the country into the trouble it's in today. The crowd loved it, and it was one more moment confirming the turnaround in the campaign dynamic since last week.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Jacksonville, Florida.

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