We Watched So You Don't Have To: Top Moments Of The GOP Tampa Debate

  • The Republican presidential candidates chat after the debate's end.
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    The Republican presidential candidates chat after the debate's end.
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  • The Republican presidential candidates take the stage for the first of two debates held in Florida ahead of the state's Jan. 31 primary election.
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    The Republican presidential candidates take the stage for the first of two debates held in Florida ahead of the state's Jan. 31 primary election.
    Paul Sancya/AP
  • Mitt Romney clashes with Newt Gingrich in the early moments of the debate.
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    Mitt Romney clashes with Newt Gingrich in the early moments of the debate.
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  • The crowd watches at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
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    The crowd watches at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
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  • Newt Gingrich, left, shares a laugh with Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
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    Newt Gingrich, left, shares a laugh with Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
    Paul Sancya/AP
  • Mitt Romney motions toward Rick Santorum during an exchange.
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    Mitt Romney motions toward Rick Santorum during an exchange.
    Paul Sancya/AP
  • Newt Gingrich steps off stage during a commercial break.
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    Newt Gingrich steps off stage during a commercial break.
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  • Maria Clara Riusech, 6, waves her balloon in the air outside the University of South Florida.
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    Maria Clara Riusech, 6, waves her balloon in the air outside the University of South Florida.
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In the first debate after Newt Gingrich's upset win in the South Carolina primary, the four GOP contenders jockeyed for new momentum heading into Florida's Jan. 31 vote.

The two South Carolina debates featured raucous audiences who cheered on the former House speaker. This time, it was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney who seemed more comfortable before the more sedate crowd.

Here are five moments that stood out in Tampa.

First Out Of The Box: Gingrich quickly compared himself to Ronald Reagan and said he balanced four budgets. Romney mentioned his own experience in business and the Olympics but quickly went on the attack, saying of Gingrich, "at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace." He also called Gingrich an "influence peddler." Gingrich dismissed the attack as "the worst kind of trivial politics."

Most Awkward Pivot: When asked about the long-awaited tax returns he plans to release Tuesday morning, Romney swiveled. "The real question is not so much my taxes, but the taxes of the American people," he said.

The Big Face-off: Moderator Brian Williams stepped back and let the two top contenders go mano a mano over Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

Romney seized on the issue: "They weren't hiring you as an historian," he said. "This contract proves that you were not an historian. You were a consultant."

Gingrich denied lobbying and called the attack "defamatory."

As Romney continued to press him on "influence peddling," Gingrich returned the volley: "You just jumped a long way over here, friend." He told Romney that his "technique" is "not going to work very well because the American people see through it."

Then Romney went after Gingrich's work on health care. "If you're getting paid by health companies ... and you then meet with Republican congressmen ... you can call it whatever you like," Romney said. "I call it influence peddling."

Most Out-Of-This World Moment: Though the candidates did talk about the space race and exploration of Mars, the most surreal talk centered on a foreign policy question. When asked what he might do if Fidel Castro died, Romney said, "First of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his Maker."

Gingrich retorted: "I don't think Fidel Castro is going to meet his Maker — he's going to the other place."

Best Closing Argument: Ron Paul and Rick Santorum got less airtime than front-of-the-pack contenders Gingrich and Romney.

But Santorum struck a strong contrast between himself and the poll leaders in the debate's final moments: "When push came to shove, they got pushed" on climate change, individual mandates and bailouts, Santorum said. "There is no difference between President Obama and these two gentlemen."


Note: Our partners at PolitiFact have fact-checked some claims made during the debate.

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