The tension between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich as the Florida primary approaches was on display Thursday at a Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Fla. The two men attacked each other on immigration, housing and their personal investments.
"The idea that I am anti-immigrant is repulsive," Romney told Gingrich, referring to an accusation in a Spanish-language ad that Gingrich later pulled from the airwaves. "You should apologize."
Fifty delegates are up for grabs for a single candidate in the Jan. 31 primary. Florida chose to flout Republican National Committee rules and allocate all of its delegates in a winner-take-all election.
In a rare moment of solidarity in the debate, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich expressed support for Romney's policy of "self-deportation," an attempt to improve enforcement of the laws so that illegal immigrants leave the United States because they can't find suitable employment.
"I actually agree with Governor Romney," Santorum said. "We have to have a country that not only do you respect the law when you come here, you respect the law when you stay here."
But Gingrich and Romney quickly turned on one another, sparring over immigration and the housing crisis.
Romney said Gingrich should have been "a whistleblower, not a horn tooter" on the housing crisis, highlighting Gingrich's work for housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich turned that around by accusing Romney of profiting from major entities that have gone into crisis, including Fannie and Freddie as well as Goldman Sachs.
Romney's defense was "my investments are not made by me," but are instead managed in a blind trust. "Have you checked your own investments?" he asked Gingrich.
At times, each of the candidates expressed annoyance with debate moderator Wolf Blitzer's focus on the conflict between the two frontrunners.
"This subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot," Ron Paul said when asked to comment on the two candidates' argument over their connections to the housing crisis.
"These two gentlemen are distracting from the most important issues we have," Santorum said.
When an unemployed woman in the audience asked the candidates about health care, Santorum took the opportunity to attack Romney for "Romneycare," arguing that a candidate who supports a individual mandate to purchase health insurance in his home state is not the best opponent to take on Barack Obama in November.
"We can't give this issue away in this election," Santorum said.
On the subject of U.S. relations with Cuba, Gingrich, Romney and Santorum took a hard line against dictator Fidel Castro--the position taken by a majority of Republicans--while Paul, who is anti-war, argued that isolating Castro only empowers him. Sanctions "inevitably backfire," Paul said, pushing instead for opening trade relations with the country.
When asked to name a Hispanic they would consider placing in their cabinet, Romney, Gingrich and Santorum each named one of Florida's highest-profile Cubans: Marco Rubio. Rubio, a Republican senator, was himself courted to run for president this cycle following his successful tea party candidacy in 2010.
Gingrich took the question a step further, teasing that he has Rubio on his vice presidential short list. I had a "central," "more dignified" role for Rubio in mind, Gingrich said.