Live Blog: Romney, Gingrich Spar At Start; Debate Then Settles Down

Left to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. i i

hide captionLeft to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Left to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Left to right: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The latest debate among candidates vying for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination began with some verbal jousting between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tonight, but then settled down into a relatively tame affair that covered a wide range of issues.

Two days after the Republican presidential campaign was turned on its head by former House Speaker Gingrich's decisive victory in South Carolina's primary, the candidates were on stage in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Romney came out hard and tried to paint Gingrich as a Washington insider, lobbyist and "influence peddler." While he rejected those labels, Gingrich did not respond with the kind of passion he turned on the news media last week in South Carolina. And after about 30 minutes of spirited but not uncivil sparring, the debaters moved on.

The campaign's next big contest is in the Sunshine State: Republicans hold their primary there on Jan. 31; one week from Tuesday. Tonight's debate was hosted by NBC News, The National Journal and the Tampa Bay Times. Also on stage: Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

We live blogged and plan to again Thursday, when there's another debate. Below, you'll see some ALERTs. That stands for "A Line Everybody [will] Remember Tomorrow." We used them to flag what we think are the "talkers."

Update at 11:12 p.m. ET. Gingrich's Post-Debate Message: "I'll Shake Up D.C."

The former speaker's message was just posted on his Twitter page: "Since 1974 I've fought for the conservative cause. I'll shake up DC with big solutions for big challenges."

Update at 11 p.m. ET. Romney Back On Attack:

And while the debate my have ended up being relatively polite, the Romney campaign is out quickly with a post-debate email going after Gingrich. It points to a video called Newt Gingrich: Mr. Washington Insider.

Update at 10:55 p.m. ET. Final ALERT: "No Speak English Well" — The Line That Wasn't Said:

The other comment you may hear about in coming days was a remark from Romney that sounded to some like he said that after children in Massachusetts were taught in their home languages at school, they could "no speak English well." But some who heard it, as The Hill writes, though he might have said "couldn't all speak English well." And in fact, a careful listen to the audio shows that he said "couldn't all speak English well." (11:45 p.m. ET: We've written through that update to make clear that the tape shows he said "couldn't all speak English well." 12:20 a.m., Jan. 24: We've isolated the audio and put it here. Sorry, we can't add a player to this post right now. 8:34 a.m. ET. We've now added a soundbite below.)

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Update at 10:50 p.m. ET. Seventh ALERT: Self-Deportation.

One of the odder turns of phrase that came up during the debate was "self-deportation." Romney said illegal immigrants will leave the country — self-deport — if employment and other laws are enforced and they decide that it's no longer desirable to be in the U.S.

Update at 10:47 p.m. ET. No Game Changer?

"I don't think [tonight's debate is] going to change the fact that momentum is all in Newt Gingrich's favor," says NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.

Update at 10:44 p.m. ET. Gingrich Toned Down?

Gingrich seemed to have decided he would stay "above it all" and not be pulled into aggressively responding to Romney's early charges, NBC News' Chuck Todd notes. Andrea Mitchell points out that Gingrich also didn't react to being called an "influence pedder" by Romney.

Update at 10:43 p.m. ET. And With That, It's Over.

The debate just finished. Now for the post-game analyses.

Update at 10:40 p.m. ET. Sixth ALERT: "There Is No Difference Between President Obama And These Two Gentlemen."

Santorum makes a detailed case about why he thinks there isn't enough difference between Gingrich, Romney and President Obama — starting with "Obamacare."

"Governor Romney's plan in Massachusetts was the basis for Obamacare," Santorum says. And, "Speaker Gingrich for 20 years supported an individual mandate, which is at the core of Obamacare."

Romney repeats his position: that you "can't impose Obamacare on the states" and that he would repeal it and allow states to make such decisions.

Update at 10:35 p.m. ET. The Battle For The Soul Of The GOP:

Moderator Brian Williams wants to know what the candidates have done to promote the Republican Party's conservative principles.

Romney begins by saying "No. 1, I've raised a family. ... Five wonderful sons and 16 wonderful grandkids." And, he stressed having "worked in the private sector."

Gingrich ticks off his record in politics, including "helping Gov. Reagan become President Reagan."

Update at 10:28 p.m. ET. Gingrich Hails The Bush-Era Tax Cuts:

Why hasn't the economy fared better given the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush? Gingrich makes the case that "we would have been in much worse shape" without them.

Update at 10:26 p.m. ET. Space:

Romney makes the case for a "collaborative" effort between businesses, educational institutions and the government to revive the nation's space program.

Gingrich says he would like to see "vastly more of the money" spent on encouraging the private sector, via prizes, to get into space ventures. He talks of a permanent station on the moon and "getting to Mars as quickly as possible."

Update at 10:21 p.m. ET. The Terry Schiavo Case:

"We go to extradorinary lengths ... for people on murderer's row," Gingrich says. It's appropriate, he adds, that courts should be involved in cases where there are questions about a terminally ill person's wishes.

Paul, a doctor, says the case underscored why it's important to have a living will.

(Background on the Schiavo story here.)

Update at 10:13 p.m. ET. "Attack Mode" Over?

Oft-quoted political scientist Larry Sabato from the University of Virginia tweets:

"Candidates are out of attack mode & back to substantive answers. They've delivered the TV soundbites they intended."

And we're now into the third commercial break.

Update at 10:11 p.m. ET. Santorum On Illegal Immigrants:

"They continually break the law in this country and I don't think that's something that should be rewarded," the former senator says.

Update at 10:08 p.m. ET. DREAM Act:

Gingrich and Romney support the idea of making citizenship available to illegal immigrants who serve in the U.S. military. They do not support offering the so-called DREAM Act to those who are college students.

Update at 10:06 p.m. ET. English-Only:

Asked why they run ads in Spanish and seek the votes of Spanish speakers, but want English to be the sole official language of government, Gingrich and Romney both say the nation has to have one language to be unified.

Paul says states should be able to decide for themselves, however, if they wanted to have state and local ballots in Spanish.

Update at 10:02 p.m. ET. Iran Equals Al-Qaida, Santorum Says:

Back on the issue of Iran, Santorum says it is "the equivalent of having al-Qaida in charge of a country with huge oil reserves and [possibly] a nuclear weapon."

Update at 9:55 p.m. ET. Paul Makes Case U.S. Has Committed Act Of War Against Iran:

"The act of war has already been committed" with the economic blockade that the U.S. and its allies have imposed on Iran, says Paul, and the threat by that country to close the Strait of Hormuz "is a retaliation."

Update at 9:52 p.m. ET. If Iran Closed Strait Of Hormuz, That Would Be An Act Of War, Romney Says:

"Of course," he says.

Gingrich says "dictatorships respond to strength, not weakness," and argues that President Obama has sent the wrong signals.

Update at 9:46 p.m. ET. Fifth ALERT: Would Castro Meet His Maker?

Asked what he would do if they got a 3 a.m. phone call saying that Cuba's Fidel Castro had died, Romney says "first of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker." Gingrich says he wouldn't "suggest Fidel is going to meet his maker" but would be going elsewhere instead.

And Gingrich says the U.S. would need to take action to make sure the Castro regime was overthrown, and should use covert operations if necessary.

Paul gets applause by repeating his criticism of U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Update at 9:44 p.m. ET. Gingrich On Overregulation:

"When you put that much power in the Treasury ... it's an invitation to corruption," Gingrich says of financial regulation.

Update at 9:42 p.m. ET. Paul Makes Case To Let Home Prices Drop:

"Let prices come down" as the markets dictate, Paul says. He renews his argument that trying to stimulate home sales and shore up home prices is wasting taxpayers' money.

Update at 9:40 p.m. ET. Santorum Suggests A Way To Help Out Homeowners:

One way to give homeowners who are "underwater" on their mortgages, Santorum suggests, would be to allow them to "deduct losses from the sale of their homes" from income taxes.

Update at 9:34 p.m. ET. Fourth ALERT: "It's Not Going To Work."

Romney peppers Gingrich with more charges that he was effectively a lobbyist for Freddie Mac. Gingrich responds by saying Romney's accusations are "not going to work because the American people see through it." He then goes into an explanation that makes the case that while his consulting group was being paid by Freddie Mac his share of that fee was relatively small.

That brings things to a commercial break. Before the ads begin, moderator Brian Williams promises that when the debate resumes Santorum and Paul will be given some time to talk. They haven't gotten much so far.

Update at 9:32 p.m. ET. Third ALERT: "They Don't Pay People $25,000 A Month To Be A Historian."

"They don't pay people $25,000 a month to be a historian," Romney says to Gingrich, referring to the former speaker's pay from Freddie Mac.

Update at 9:29 p.m. ET: "I have never, ever gone into lobbying:"

Gingrich restates his position that he was a consultant, not a historian for Freddie Mac.

Update at 9:28 a.m. ET. Santorum Questions Gingrich And Romney On Capitalism:

"My question to Gov. Romney and to Speaker Gingrich," says Santorum, is "if you believe in capitalism that much, why did you support the bailout of Wall Street?"

Update at 9:25 p.m. ET. Second ALERT: "Weapons Of The Left."

Addressing the criticism he's gotten from some of the other candidates about his business record, Romney accuses them of picking up the "weapons of the left" to take aim at someone who's successful.

Update at 9:21 p.m. ET. "No Surprises In His Taxes," Romney Says:

Asked about the income tax returns he's due to release Tuesday, Romney says there will be "no surprises" in them.

"The real question is not so much my taxes as the taxes of the American people" and why he thinks they need to be cut, Romney adds.

Update at 9:18 p.m. ET. Does Paul Want To Be President?

Moderator Brian Williams asks Paul about comments the congressman has made that indicate he doesn't envision himself as president. "I just don't sit around and daydream about it," Paul says.

Will he run as a third-party candidate? "I don't want to," Paul says. "I don't have any plans to do that."

Update at 9:15 p.m. ET. Santorum Makes His Case:

He's the candidate who can make President Obama "the issue in this race, not the Republican candidates," Santorum argues.

Update at 9:12 p.m. ET. Gingrich Responds:

"The vote on the Ethics Committee was in January 1997," Gingrich says, continuing to address Romney's charge that he "resigned in disgrace" from the House. "I asked Republicans to vote yes because we had to get it behind us" after Democrats filed more than 80 ethics charges against him. "Every single ethics charge of substance was dismissed in the end," he says.

Update at 9:10 p.m. ET. More Opening Charges:

Following up Gingrich's claim that he had misstated recent history, Romney again mentions that Gingrich "resigned in disgrace" and says that "88 percent" of Republicans in the House voted to reprimand Gingrich.

Update at 9:08 p.m. ET. First ALERT: "Resign In Disgrace."

In the space of about 90 seconds, Romney mentions twice that Gingrich "resigned in disgrace" from the House speaker's post and called Gingrich "an influence peddler in Washington." Gingrich accuses Romney of four lies.

Update at 9:06 p.m. ET. Gingrich Begins With Reagan Comparison:

Asked by moderator Brian Williams about charges that Gingrich isn't electable, the former House speaker compares himself to former President Reagan, who once was 30 points behind President Carter in the polls. Reagan "cheerfully went out and won the debate and won the election," he says.

Update at 9 p.m. ET. What If There Were Trap Doors?

The debate's about to begin. The lead-in show on NBC: Who's Still Standing? where losers get dropped through a hole in the floor. Good idea for political debates?

Update at 8:55 p.m. ET. As For Rep. Michele Bachmann:

The onetime GOP contender just tweeted her supporters, suggesting they watch her latest video. It's her address to the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life's Rally for Life.

Update at 8:50 p.m. ET. Ten Minutes To Go.

Update at 8:30 p.m. ET. Romney "Searches For 'Debate Moment' ":

In its preview, Politico writes that "key debate moments have not been Romney's calling card."

Update at 8:20 p.m. ET. Will They Be As Harsh Face To Face?

Earlier today, Romney said Gingrich has been "highly erratic" over the years. Gingrich said Romney has been tossing around "desperate baloney." If they follow through with such words on stage, things could get hot.

Update at 8:15 p.m. ET. As We Wait, A Look At The Latest Polls:

As Frank reported earlier, a new national poll of Republicans from Gallup has Gingrich and Romney essentially tied. And Gingrich has polled ahead in two polls of Republicans in Florida.

Update at 8:10 p.m. ET. Where To Submit A Question:

National Journal, one of the debate's co-sponsors, is inviting questions on its Facebook page and says some might be asked on the air.

From our original post at 7:55 p.m. ET:

Debates were crucial to the outcome in South Carolina. Will that happen again? Join us as we follow along.key debate moments have not been Romney's calling card.

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