In a sometimes feisty, often substantive debate just four days before the crucial Florida primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich clashed again tonight — with Romney, as he was in the previous debate on Monday, appearing to be the more aggressive.
Romney called on Gingrich to apologize for comments he's made about Romney's immigration policies, fired back at challenges regarding his personal finances and again tried to make the case that Gingrich is a Washington insider who won't bring about real change.
One of the sharpest exchanges came after moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN asked Gingrich to explain comments he's made about Romney's personal finances. When Gingrich tried to demur, saying the debate should be about issues not personal attacks, Romney challenged him to say on stage what he's been willing to say on the campaign trail. That led to the two men pointing fingers at each other about money they've earned thanks to investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
The barbed exchanges between the two front-runners helped one of the other candidates on stage, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, stand out as he repeatedly turned the conversation back to health care, the economy and other issues. Also benefiting from the clashes between Romney and Gingrich was the fourth candidate still left in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who several times drew cheers by gently and humorously steering the debaters back to the topics he holds dear — civil liberty and the Constitution.
There was a lot at stake: If Gingrich follows up his decisive victory in the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary with a win in Florida, the battle between him and Romney will only intensify and could extend well into the spring — or longer. If Romney wins the Sunshine State, that could deal a hard blow to the Gingrich campaign.
And if Santorum and Paul's strong showings tonight draw votes from either of the front runners, that could further complicate the Florida race.
We live blogged as the debate happened. Read though to see how the night developed.
Update at 10:02 p.m. ET. Last Question — Why Are You The Best Candidate To Go Against President Obama?
Paul makes the case that his message about freedom and civil liberties is "appealing to everyone."
Romney argues that just "changing chairs" in Washington (a shot aimed at Gingrich) won't bring the kind of change that's needed to prevent America from becoming a "socialist welfare state."
For Gingrich, it's because he's for "freedom, independence, a paycheck" and a job, not "dependence, food stamps" and a lack of a future.
Santorum argues that he's the best choice because Romney and Gingrich have supported too many things that Democrats also favored, including "top-down, government-run health care" and the "Wall Street bailout."
Update at 9:50 p.m. ET. How Religion Would Influence Them:
Paul says his religious beliefs "affect my character and the way I treat people and how I live." His decisions would be based on "the oath of office and promises I've made to people."
Romney concurs, but adds that he "would also seek the guidance of providence in making decisions."
Gingrich says presidents "should go to God; they should seek guidance" because some of the decisions they have to make go "beyond the ability of mere mortals" to make. He also says he's running for president, in part, because there's a "war against religion" and particularly Christianity being waged by the media and other elites.
Santorum speaks about this nation being the only one in the world with founding documents that speak about about "God-given rights."
"Faith has everything to do with it," he says of making presidential decisions.
Update at 9:46 p.m. ET. Puerto Rico:
The issue of whether Puerto Rico should become the 51st state comes up. Santorum says he has no position — it should be up to the people of Puerto Rico.
Update at 9:43 p.m. ET. Israel-Palestine:
A "Palestinian Republican" in the audience asks the candidates about how to bring peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
Romney says there isn't peace there because "Hamas and others who think like Hamas" are in the Palestinian leadership and do not want a "two-state solution." Gingrich says on his first day as president he would direct the State Department to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv — a sign of his strong support for Israel.
Update at 9:36 p.m. ET. Cuba:
Santorum unleashes on the Obama administration for taking some steps to open up ties to Cuba, saying that is rewarding the Castro regime. Asked what he would do if Raul Castro telephoned, Paul says "I'd ask him what he called about" and then talk about what can be done to improve relations. Romney accuses Obama of ignoring Latin America and says that when Fidel Castro "finally leaves this planet" he would use every resource available (short of military action) to help bring freedom to the Cuban people. Gingrich says he finds it "amazing that Barack Obama worries about an Arab Spring" but not a Cuban Spring.
Update at 9:33 p.m. ET. Romney Demurs:
Gingrich accuses the Romney campaign of raising questions about how closely the former congressman worked with the Reagan administration during his year's in office. Asked to respond, Romney basically says Reagan diaries and biographies can answer the question.
Update at 9:31 p.m ET. Being Governor Made Romney "More Conservative":
"I became more conservative as I was governor," Romney says.
Update at 9:28 p.m. ET. They All Have Great Wives:
Moderator Wolf Blitzer asks each candidate to talk about why their wives would be good first ladies.
Paul talks about his nearly 54 years of marriage, five children and 18 grandchildren. Romney calls his wife, who has multiple sclerosis and has battled breast cancer, "a real champion and fighter." Gingrich says his wife "brings an artistic focus." And Santorum says his wife, a former neonatal nurse who went on to earn a law degree, is "my hero."
Update at 9:20 p.m. ET. Sen. Rubio As V.P.?
Which Hispanic-Americans would they consider for Cabinet positions? Santorum gets to respond first and goes right to the obvious answer in Florida: Sen. Marco Rubio. Gingrich says of Rubio that he's thought of him for a "slightly more dignified position," clearly referring to the vice presidency. Romney echoes that. He and Gingrich also tick off several other names of potential Cabinet members, citing prominent Hispanic Republicans from around the nation. Paul has a different take: He doesn't name any names, but says Latinos seem to be "especially attuned to the foreign policy of non-intervention" and are "more opposed to war than other communities" — positions he believes in strongly.
Update at 9:15 p.m. ET. Santorum's Moment, Thanks To "Romneycare":
It took a little more than an hour, but Santorum gets to be the first to focus on "Romneycare" — the health care overhaul enacted in Massachusetts when Romney was governor that he and other critics say was the model for "Obamacare."
Romney defends the work in Massachusetts and says, as he had before, that he would repeal "Obamacare" because it imposes itself on states.
Santorum fires back that Romney just threw his support behind "top down government run medicine," and declares that "folks, we can't give this issue away in the election" in a campaign against President Obama, who would argue that the national plan is no different than Massachusetts'.
"Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama's mandate," Santorum adds.
"All you're arguing about is which form of government is involved," says Paul, who makes his case that it's best to get the government out of health care, not in it.
Update at 9:07 p.m. ET. The President Comes Up:
Romney brings up President Obama, who hasn't been mentioned much tonight. He refers to the president's State of the Union address as "ground hog day" because "the president has failed the American people" but keeps saying the same things.
Update at 9:02 p.m. ET. Romney, Gingrich Spar Again:
Romney uses Gingrich's support for a new space program to say that the former House speaker has been going from "state to state and promising people what they want to hear ... that's what got us into the trouble we're in now."
Gingrich says it's a politician's job to "learn about the states they campaign" and offer responsible ideas.
Santorum weighs in, saying "we need leaders who will be honest" about the nation's problems and won't promise things the nation can't afford.
Update at 8:56 p.m. ET. A Base On The Moon:
Gingrich has said he would put a base on the moon within eight years. Romney says that would be too expensive, though he does favor a manned space program.
"By the use of prizes," incentives and working with commercial enterprises, Gingrich says, the nation could get back to the moon. And, "I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there," he says.
"It's a great thing to get votes," but isn't responsible to talk about "grand schemes" such as a base on the moon, Santorum says.
"I don't think we should go to the moon. I think maybe we should send some politicians up there, sometimes," Paul quips. More seriously, he says he would support space efforts tied to defense, but not "a bigger, newer program" when health care and other things deserve a higher priority.
Update at 8:52 p.m. ET. Paul's Health:
Paul would be 76 if he became president. Is he willing to release his medical records? Yes. And, he says, "I'm willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25 mile bike ride in the heat of Texas."
The others also say they're willing to release their medical records.
Update at 8:45 p.m. ET. ALERT. Romney Basically Says Bring It On.
CNN's Wolf Blitzer asks Gingrich if he still believes Romney needs to explain more about his personal finances. Gingrich tells Blitzer that's a "nonsense question" and that it's time to move on to issues. The audience agrees.
But Romney chimes in to say "wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they're not willing to defend here."
So Gingrich says fine, explain yourself.
To which Romney says, again, that "I have a trustee that manages my investments in a blind trust" so that he can avoid conflicts of interest. And he then launches into a defense of having earned millions and paid his taxes under current rules.
(ALERTs are "A Line Everybody [will] Remember Tomorrow.)
Update at 8:38 p.m. ET. ALERT: You Do! So Do You!
Gingrich takes aim at Romney, saying the former Massachusetts governor has investments in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, the much-maligned mortgage giants that get a lot of blame for the housing bust. Romney should tell the people of Florida "how much money he's made" off the institutions responsible for so many home foreclosures, Gingrich says.
Romney's obviously prepared. "My investments are not made by me," he says. They're in a blind trust. And "have you checked your own investments?" he asks Gingrich. "You also have investments in mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."
CNN's Wolf Blitzer asks Paul if he's concerned by any of that. "That subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot," Paul says, to loud applause. And Santorum gets big cheers by suggesting that Gingrich and Romney stop with the "petty personal politics. ... Leave that alone and focus on the issues!"
Update at 8:32 p.m. ET. Romney Called Out:
Earlier, Romney said he wasn't familiar with a radio ad supporting his campaign that said Gingrich called Spanish a "ghetto" language. Moderator Wolf Blitzer of CNN informs Romney that the ad is from his campaign and ends with Romney's voice saying he approves the message.
Update at 8:30 p.m. ET. Paul And Santorum Spar:
After Santorum's critique of the Obama administration's policy toward Latin America, Paul says it doesn't make sense to be thinking about taking military action there.
Santorum says Paul must not have been listening.
"No one's talking about force. No one's talking about going into Cuba or Venezuela," Santorum says.
Update at 8:28 p.m. ET. Policy Toward Latin America:
Asked about engaging with countries in Latin America, including those with leftist or socialist governments, Paul says that "free trade is an answer to a lot of conflicts around the world. ... You might add Cuba too."
Santorum ticks off the mistakes he believes the Obama administration has made, such as "not standing up for our friends in Colombia" and not paying enough attention to "the threat of Islam" in some of the nations there as Iran allies with Venezuela and others.
Update at 8:22 p.m. ET. First ALERT:
After Gingrich repeats a charge he's made this week that Romney is the most anti-immigrant candidate in the campaign, Romney says "that's inexcusable. ... Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. ... It's repulsive. Don't use a term like that. ... I think you should apologize for it."
Gingrich maintains that Romney has advocated policies that would force authorities to round up immigrant grandmothers and grandfathers.
(ALERTs are "A Line Everybody [will] Remember Tomorrow.)
Update at 8:18 p.m. ET. Paul On Immigration:
Paul says "I think we spend way too much time worrying about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. ... Use some of those resources on our own border."
Update at 8:17 p.m. ET. More On Self-Deportation:
Romney says "self-deportation" will reduce the number of illegal immigrants in the country if legal immigrants are issued cards that show they may work in the U.S.. Then, "if emloyers hire someone without a card ... they will be severely sanctioned."
Update at 8:15 p.m. ET. Immigration:
The first question, from a member of the audience, is about immigration.
Santorum begins by saying he agrees with something Romney said on Monday — that many illegal immigrants will "self-deport" if employment and other laws are enforced. Santorum says he's in favor of legal immigration, but wants laws enforced to crack down on illegal immigration.
Gingrich says he doesn't think "grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport."
Update at 8:09 p.m. ET. Santorum's Mom:
In his opening remarks, Santorum offers a shout-out to "my mom," who's in the audience. She's 93.
Update at 8:08 p.m. ET. How Will The Audience React?
CNN has said it has no problem with members of the audience clapping and showing support, but also wants the candidates to be shown proper respect. Will there be any hooting and hollering as in South Carolina?
Update at 8:06 p.m. ET. From Left To Right:
For TV viewers, it's Santorum, Gingrich, Romney, then Paul.
Update at 8:05 p.m. ET: The Candidates Are Being Introduced.
From our original post (from 7 p.m. ET) and three earlier updates:
The latest polls from Florida show a tight race there between front runners Romney and Gingrich. We learned in South Carolina that debates could be crucial — Gingrich surged in the state after two feisty performances in the days leading up to the vote there.
Tonight, the setting is the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. The host network is CNN. The network's Wolf Blitzer will moderate. The other sponsors are the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network, a center-right advocacy group.
The debate starts at 8 p.m. ET and is supposed to go until 10 p.m. As we did on Monday when the candidates debated in Tampa, we'll be live blogging. Be sure to hit your refresh button once in a while so that you see our latest updates.
And thanks for joining us.
Update at 7:50 p.m. ET. After Tonight, A Month-Long Debate Break.
Good news for those who are tired of debates; bad news for those who think they're some of the best reality TV around: The next scheduled debate among Republican contenders after tonight's isn't until Feb. 22 in Arizona. (NPR's political calendar is here.)
"CNN's Wolf Blitzer says Ron Paul is the only candidate that will reduce spending."
Update at 7:25 p.m. ET. More Tough Talk Today.
The latest Associated Press story begins with this: "Newt Gingrich launched a blistering attack on rival Mitt Romney ahead of a potentially raucous debate Thursday, as the two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination fought for an edge ahead of Tuesday's important Florida primary. ... Romney avoided mentioning his rival while campaigning Thursday. But Gingrich blasted Romney and his supporters, accusing them of dishonest ads. 'This is the desperate last stand of the old order,' he said. 'This is the kind of gall they have, to think we're so stupid and we're so timid.' "