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.
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas said Mr. Gingrich "stretched" the truth when he said that he helped balanced the budget for four years. "The national debt during those four years actually went up about a trillion dollars," Mr. Paul said, referring to bookkeeping methods that include Social Security.
Both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney chided Mr. Gingrich for promising too many costly things in too many states — including his support of a lunar base, which he suggested this week could apply for statehood if the American population living there reaches 13,000.
"We run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now," Mr. Santorum said. "We're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar, and to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to how to grow them."
Mr. Romney had a similar take. "I spent 25 years in business," he said. "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 two front-runners also sparred over Mr. Romney's newly released tax returns — which Mr. Gingrich said earlier in the day proved that Republicans could not beat President Obama with "some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island bank account, owns shares of Goldman Sachs."
"Have you checked your investments?" Mr. Romney asked Mr. Gingrich, before going on to point out that the former speaker had mutual funds that invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
He also attacked Mr. Gingrich for using his influence to help Freddie Mac, saying America needed "a whistle-blower, not a horn tooter."
Mr. Santorum denounced the spat as "petty personal politics" and told CNN that "you guys should leave that alone" and ask questions about issues. Mr. Romney is, he said, "a wealthy guy because he worked hard" and Mr. Gingrich made money by advising companies after leaving government, which he called "not the worst thing in the world."
Mr. Gingrich says he believe candidates' wealth should be a non-issue and called it a "nonsense question," but says he must defend himself from attacks.
The public grilling of Mr. Gingrich coincided with an increasing backlash against him from powerful Republicans from his past, who came out of the woodwork to warn that his ideas rarely came to fruition, that he wore out his welcome during his tenure as speaker and that he became a political liability.
Labeling him an "erratic" and "undisciplined" lawmaker, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay said he was a Clinton-like fraud and "not really a conservative."
Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state under President Reagan, chided Mr. Gingrich's effort to wrap himself in the mantle of Reagan are "misleading at best" — pointing out that he "often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat communism."
The 1996 Republican presidential nominee, Bob Dole, wrote Thursday that Mr. Gingrich was a drag on his bid for the White House and cost the party seats in the House elections that year. Mr. Dole said Mr. Gingrich would do the same this year if he represents the party atop the ticket in the November election.
"Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him, and that fact speaks for itself," said Mr. Dole, who was Senate Republican leader at the time and dealt with Mr. Gingrich regularly. "He was a one-man band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway."
Polls released this week suggested the mounting criticism is starting to weigh down Mr. Gingrich, which has helped Mr. Romney recapture the lead here that he briefly lost after the South Carolina primary on Saturday.
The 19th debate of the campaign season came at a pivotal time in a Republican nomination race that has featured three different winners in as many nomination contests. Mr. Santorum learned last week that he won the Iowa caucuses. Mr. Romney won the New Hampshire primary before Mr. Gingrich walked out of South Carolina victorious.
With five days to go before the Sunshine State primary, where 50 delegates and the campaign storyline are up for grabs, the debate gave the candidates an important opportunity to woo voters, including that state's more than 450,000 Hispanic Republicans, who have brought immigration and Cuba center stage as issues.
A Romney win would help him erase some of lingering doubts over whether he's the most electable candidate in the race. A Gingrich victory would help solidify him as the conservative alternative to Mr. Romney and give him the jolt of momentum in advance of a Feb. 22 debate in Arizona, as no candidate has taken advantage of the debate stage more than Mr. Gingrich — using them to revive his dying campaign and to help win the South Carolina primary.
Mr. Santorum, meanwhile, hopes to dig into Mr. Gingrich's base of support. On Thursday, his campaign highlighted the ex-speaker's drop in polls and hammered him for selling out conservative principles by previously supporting a federal health care mandate, amnesty for some illegal immigrants and Wall Street bailouts, "which is a slap in the face of the tea party."
Mr. Paul, meanwhile, has been a relative no-show here and appears to be focusing his attention on the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses, where he performed well in his 2008 bid.
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