US Republican presidential hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich traded blows on immigration, space policy and wealth in a feisty debate ahead of the all-important Florida primary.
Romney — once seen as the obvious nominee to challenge US President Barack Obama in November, but now tied with Gingrich in the polls — came out swinging on Thursday, dismissing suggestions he is anti-immigration and that he dodges taxes.
Showing a flash of steel seldom seen in his campaign, Romney said: “The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
“It’s simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that’s characterized American politics too long,” the former Massachusetts governor added to audience cheers. “I think you should apologize for it and recognize that having differences of opinions does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”
Immigration has been high on the agenda in Florida, which has a large Hispanic bloc.
Seeking to capitalize, Gingrich ridiculed Romney’s proposal that illegal immigrants should willingly leave the country and reapply for legal entry, saying: “I don’t think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport.”
Romney, who said his father was born in Mexico and his father-in-law in Wales, angrily shot back: “I’m not going to find grandmothers and deport them. Those are your words. Not my words.”
“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have,” he said.
The high stakes of the debate, just five days ahead of Tuesday’s vote in the Sunshine State, were evident in the terse exchanges on almost every issue and from the relative lack of discussion about Obama.
Such was the heat of the early exchanges that Gingrich offered a truce.
“How about if the four of us agree, for the rest of the evening we’re going to talk about issues?” he asked.
The offer was quickly knocked down when Gingrich refused to answer for earlier comments about Romney’s Swiss and Cayman Islands bank accounts.
Instead Romney, a multimillionaire former businessman, went on the attack.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to make here?” Romney asked rhetorically.
Romney also ripped into Gingrich’s plans to establish a permanent base on the moon, largely with private funding.
“It may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea,” Romney said, suggesting that if a manager came to him with the proposal, the manager would be fired.
Each of the first three nominating contests had different winners — former senator Rick Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire and then Gingrich in South Carolina — upending the race as the candidates headed to Florida.
The fourth contender, small-government champion and Texas Representative Ron Paul, came third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire.
The primary in Florida is a winner-takes-all race for 50 delegates — nearly the same offered in the three previous contests combined — and it is seen as a virtual must-win for Gingrich.