Romney, Gingrich clash over immigration in Florida debate

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Newt Gingrich played the role of political pinata in the debate here Thursday as his Republican rivals whacked away at his stances on immigration, previous support of a federal health care mandate and recent call for a new moon base — all just five days out from the state’s all-important presidential primary.

Fresh out of the gate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney demanded Mr. Gingrich apologize for running a television ad here that described him as “anti-immigrant.” He also assailed him for suggesting that his claims about “self-deportation” and stronger immigration enforcement means that he doesn’t care about “grandmothers.”

The former House speaker refused to apologize for the ad, which he pulled down this week after being chided by Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a tea party favorite, but he did walk back his charge that Mr. Romney’s belief in self-deportation shows he is living in an “Obama-level fantasy.”

Mr. Gingrich tried to thread the needle Thursday, arguing that while many single or short-term immigrants will leave the country if they can’t find work, it is unlikely that “grandmothers or grandfathers will self-deport.” Then he called for “some level of humanity” to be built into the law, letting people and families who have been here for decades to obtain some sort of legal status.

Mr. Romney pounced: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.”

The problem, he argued, is the undocumented immigrants who take jobs from Americans and legal immigrations, the increased cost they saddle on the nation’s health care and education, and the fact that they leapfrog in front of the millions of people waiting to come here legally.

“The real concern is the people who want to come here legally. Let’s let legal immigrants come here. Let’s stop illegal immigration,” Mr. Romney said.

The back-and-forth came during the opening minutes of the two-hour debate, which was aired on CNN and co-hosted by the Hispanic Leadership Network and the Republican Party of Florida.

While Mr. Gingrich had the biggest target on his back, Mr. Romney also found himself in the middle of an awkward moment early, with regard to what campaign commercials he has approved.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer had to remind the ex-governor that, contrary to his memory, he was running a radio commercial here — which includes in the script “I’m Mitt Romney and I approved this ad” — that highlights how Mr. Gingrich previously called Spanish “the language of the ghetto.”

Mr. Romney stood by the ad, though, asking Mr. Gingrich whether he had said that, and when Mr. Gingrich said it was taken out of context, Mr. Romney responded, “So, you did say it.”

Mr. Romney also came under fire from former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who took him to task for the universal health care plan that he signed into law in Massachusetts.

“Folks, we can’t give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom, whether the United States government or even a state government” can mandate the purchase of health insurance, Mr. Santorum said, telling Mr. Romney at one point that “your mandate is no different than Barack Obama’s mandate.”

But Mr. Gingrich had the biggest bull’s-eye on his back, putting him on his heels throughout much of the evening.

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