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Presidential Debate: GOP Candidates Face Off In Florida

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By STEVE PEOPLES, ASSOCIATED PRESS

TAMPA, Fla. — Republican presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich clashed repeatedly in heated, personal terms Monday night in a crackling campaign debate, the former Massachusetts governor tagging his rival as an "influence peddler" in Washington, only to be accused in turn of spreading falsehoods over many years in politics.

"You've been walking around the state saying things that are untrue," Gingrich said to his rival in a two-hour debate marked by interruptions and finger pointing.

The debate marked the first encounter among the four remaining GOP contenders – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul shared the stage – since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in an upset last weekend, a double-digit victory that reset the race to pick a rival to challenge President Barack Obama this fall.

Romney was the aggressor from the opening moments Monday night, saying Gingrich had "resigned in disgrace" from Congress after four years as speaker and then had spent the next 15 years "working as an influence peddler" in Washington.

In particular, he referred to the contract Gingrich's consulting firm had with Freddie Mac, a government-backed mortgage giant that he said "did a lot of bad for a lot of people and you were working there."

Romney also said Gingrich had lobbied lawmakers to approve legislation creating a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

"I have never, ever gone and done any lobbying," Gingrich said emphatically, adding that his firm had hired an expert to explain to employees "the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist."

Romney counterpunched quickly, referring to what he said was more than $1 million that Gingrich's consulting firm received from Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant.

And when Gingrich sought to turn the tables by inquiring about the private equity firm that Romney founded, the former Massachusetts governor replied: "We didn't do any work with the government. ...I wasn't a lobbyist"

As for the Medicare prescription drug benefit, Gingrich said that while he never lobbied lawmakers, as Romney charged, he was proud of having supported it. "It has saved lives. It's run on a free enterprise model," he said.

At times, the other two contenders on stage were reduced to supporting roles.

Asked if he could envision a path to the nomination for himself, Santorum said the race has so far been defined by its unpredictability. He conceded he had been defeated for re-election in 2006 in Pennsylvania but said the party lost the governorship by an even bigger margin than his own defeat.

"There's one thing worse than losing an election and that's not standing for the principles that you hold," he said, a comment he frequently makes while campaigning in an attempt to question Romney's commitment to conservatism.

Paul sidestepped when moderator Brian Williams of NBC asked if he would run as a third-party candidate in the fall if he doesn't win the nomination. "I have no intention," he said, but he didn't rule it out.

The polls post-South Carolina show Gingrich and Romney leading in the Florida primary. That and the former speaker's weekend victory explained why the two were squabbling even before the debate began, and why they tangled almost instantly once it had begun.

Below, HuffPost's live blog coverage of Monday night's debate.

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New Tampa Patch's Sherri Lonan and John Majeski report from Florida:

As political pundits scramble to determine the winner of tonight's Republican presidential candidates' debate, viewers from the Tampa Bay area have their own opinions.

"To me, it comes across as quite a bit of a draw," said Josh Burgin, treasurer for the Hillsborough County Republican Party. After Newt Gingrich's win in the South Carolina Primary, "Romney is trying to get in there and he's definitely on the full attack."

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Space travel is an issue that will likely come in few states besides Florida this primary season, but both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were quick to recognize the importance of the Space Coast is to this state and agreed that the issue is important for the country.

"It should certainly be a priority," said Romney when asked whether, during a time of reduced federal spending, space exploration should be a focus.

"What we have now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. As a result of that, there are people on the space coast that are suffering. Florida itself is suffering as a result," he said.

Gingrich added that he would like to go back to the moon "permanently" and get to Mars "as rapidly as possible, building a series of space stations and developing commercial space."

Romney and Gingrich both said that space exploration should be a collaborative effort between the federal government and the private sector.

"From NASA, from the Air Force space program, from our leading universities and from commercial enterprises -- bring them together, discuss a wide range of options for NASA and then have NASA not just funded by the federal government but by commercial enterprises," Romney added. "Have research done in our universities. Let's have a collaborative effort with business, with government, with military and with our educational institutions. Have a mission."

Gingrich was then asked whether he would "put more tax dollars into the space race and commit to putting an American on mars instead of relying on the private sector."

"Well, the two are not incompatible," he replied. "For example, most of the great breakthroughs in aviation were as a result of prizes. [Charles] Lindbergh flew to Paris for a ,000 prize. I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into a very aggressive experimentation. I would like a leaner NASA. I don't think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there. But if we had a series of goals that we were prepared to offer prizes for, there is every reason to believe you have folks in this country and around the world who would put up an amazing amount of money and would make the space coast literally hum with activity because they'd be drawn to achieve prizes."

-- Amanda Terkel

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Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were questioned Monday about whether it is hypocritical for them to run Spanish-language ads -- which both were doing extensively ahead of the Florida primary -- when they also say English should be the official language of the government.

Making English the official language would prohibit state and local governments from making public literature in other languages, which critics say could cause health risks and create communication problems.

Gingrich said he still that thinks English should be the national language because it would "unify the country" and that ballots should be in English. But he defended his Spanish-language campaign efforts, which include ads and a Twitter feed, which now may be defunct. He said he's "perfectly happy" to be on Spanish-language radio stations and "perfectly happy to have a lot of support in the Hispanic community."

"I think campaigning, historically, you've always been willing to go to people on their terms in their culture, whether it's Greek Independence Day or something you did for the Irish on St. Patrick's Day," he said.

Romney, who released a Spanish-language radio ad on Monday to add to a television ad released earlier this month, said he agreed that English-only education and government is needed. He said that in Massachusetts people were taught "in the language of their birth" and it caused major problems.

"Look, English is the language of this nation," Romney said. "People need to learn English to be able to be successful, to get great jobs. We don't want to have people limited in their capacity to achieve the American dream because they don't speak English."

Ron Paul said he agreed English should be the national language, but that states should have the right to do what they want in terms of their own government.

"If Florida wanted to have some ballots in Spanish, I certainly wouldn't support a federal law that would prohibit Florida from accommodating a city election or a local election or a state election," he said. "I think that's the magnificence of our system."

-- Elise Foley

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Mitt Romney softened his position on the Dream Act during Monday night's debate, saying he would support legislation to provide legal status to some undocumented immigrants who want to join the military.

It's a statement he's made before, but was previously far more insistent that he would veto the Dream Act than show interest in passing part of it. Under the Dream Act, which has been around in some form for more than a decade, undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as children would be allow to stay under strict conditions, including a clean criminal record and "good moral character," should they join the military or attend college for two years.

Adam Smith, one of the debate's moderators, asked Newt Gingrich whether he would veto the Dream Act if it came to his desk, pointing out that Romney and Rick Santorum have said they would without question kill the bill.

Gingrich said he would support part of the bill that would allow for legal status for those who joined the military -- a more centrist position that is more likely to appeal to Latino voters, who make up a large bloc of Florida voters and who largely support the Dream Act.

Romney, perhaps realizing that his statement on vetoing the Dream Act won't play as well in Florida as it might have in Iowa and South Carolina, chimed in.

"I'd just noted that's the same position that I have, and that's that I wouldn't sign the Dream Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service," Romney said, interrupting Gingrich's answer.

Romney is attempting to toe the line on immigration issues. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, who campaigned for him, mentioned in every introduction that he would support the state's contested immigration law, which is designed to drive undocumented immigrants out of the U.S. He received an endorsement from Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state and a key architect of those state laws.

But Romney also touts endorsements from Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, all of whom have publicly said they disagree with his views on the Dream Act.

His soft act on immigration didn't last long, though. Smith's next question to Romney was about his statements on driving undocumented immigrants out of the U.S. He has said both that he wouldn't round up the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country, but also that he would make them leave.

"The answer is self-deportation," Romney said. "People decide that they do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here.

Romney said that by cracking down on employers people would leave the U.S.

"Isn't that what we have now?" moderator Adam Smith interjected. "If somebody doesn't feel they have the opportunity in America, they can go back any time they want to."

Romney said under his system there would be a card that indicates who is here legally, and that card would be used for employment under the E-Verify system. If people could not find work, they would then go home -- essentially the same point he was making before Smith's question.

"If people don't get work here they're going to self-deport to a place where they can get work," Romney said.

Smith followed up with Rick Santorum, asking him whether "self-deportation" is a valid concept.

"It's happening now, people are going back now," Santorum said. "They can't find jobs because of the economy and the lack of economic opportunities."

-- Elise Foley

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The jokesters at the Newt Gingrich campaign sent out a press release on Monday night after the NBC-National Journal debate, titled, "Mitt Romney's Conservative Accomplishments."

It was empty.



-- Amanda Terkel

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The GOP's rallying cry of "drill, baby, drill" is alive and well.

Environmental policy, heretofore practically unmentioned on the campaign trail, was the topic of several questions at Monday night's debate. Not that this is a surprise in Florida, where offshore oil drilling poses a threat to the all-important tourism industry and where the state's prized Everglades region has repeatedly come under attack.

One questioner asked Santorum whether he thinks expanding offshore drilling is worth the risk, claiming it would create only 5,000 jobs while an oil spill could tar Florida's beaches and its tourism industry, which employs nearly a million people.

Santorum remained unmoved.

"What threatens the tourist industry in Florida, as we're seeing, is a very bad economy -- and a very bad economy that became a bad economy why? Because of a huge spike in oil prices in the summer of 2008. So energy is absolutely key to keeping all of our country healthy, specifically Florida, which is a destination. This is a place that relies on people being able to travel and afford to travel to come down here," Santorum continued. "It relies upon an economy being strong."

Santorum's response should come as no surprise. The former Pennsylvania senator has long called for more offshore drilling, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and beyond. Further, Santorum has voiced doubts about global warming -- and he has plenty of company within the Republican presidential field.

In 2008, Gingrich appeared in an ad alongside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging the country to address climate change, before walking back those views entirely earlier in his campaign for president, calling it one of the "stupidest" things he'd ever done.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) meanwhile has also become increasingly skeptical of climate change. In a 2009 interview with Fox News, he said, "The greatest hoax I think that has been around for many, many years if not hundreds of years has been this hoax on the environment and global warming."

Santorum at Monday's debate also called for the approval of the Keystone XL, the controversial oil pipeline that would import crude oil from tar sands in Canada and has been the topic of dozens of protests outside the White House.

"It is absolutely essential that we have as much domestic supply of oil, that we build the Keystone pipeline, that we create the jobs that provide oil from domestic sources, pipelines the run on the floor of the sea or pipelines that come to America are the safest way to transport oil. It is tankers that cause much more problems," Santorum added. "Pipelines are the safe way, building those rigs, into our shores is the best way to create a good economy and a safer Florida."

It's not the first time Republican presidential candidates have called for expanded drilling and the approval of the pipeline.

Gingrich has long called for lifting restrictions on offshore drilling. And Romney has repeatedly called for approval of the pipeline, accusing President Obama during a debate in South Carolina last week of bowing to the "most extreme members" of the environmental movement in rejecting a permit for the pipeline.

"You go across the country with regards with energy, and because he has to bow to the most extreme members of the environmental movement he turns down the Keystone pipeline, which would bring energy and jobs to America," Romney said to a smattering of boos that may well have been directed at the president.

-- Lucia Graves

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As Newt Gingrich explained that he spent 16 years singularly focused on building a Republican majority in the House through his GOPAC fund, it's worth revisiting two drawings Gingrich made to illustrate his plans on December 18,1992, when his GOPAC activities were nearing their peak. The "M" in the circle with "N" and "M" in the middle represents his second wife, Marianne Gingrich.

Both drawings were included among documents presented to the House Ethics Committee.

-- Christina Wilkie

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@ AriFleischer : More people on my plane were watching the Simpsons than the debate.

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@ HuffPostMedia : It's over! NBC's David Gregory and Chuck Todd are on hand for the network's post-debate analysis. What did you think of the #FLdebate?

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@ MSignorile : On the day WA get the votes to pass marriage equality, no questions re: marriage. #NBCdebate

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@ HuffPostHill : TONIGHT'S WINNER: The American sugar beet farmer who dreams of a better life on Mars. TONIGHT'S LOSER: The second sugar beet farmer on Mars.

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New Tampa Patch's John Majeski and Ashley Reams report from Florida:

USF students were also out in force, with some protesting the Republican platform.

"We are protesting the issues we have with the GOP's issues," said a student named Hunter who wouldn't give his last name. "We are here to show we are the people."

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@ TheFix : "What a great thrill that was." -- Mitt on running against Ted Kennedy. #fldebate

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Temple Terrace Patch's John Majeski and Ashley Reams report from Florida:

The songs being sung, however, have very different tunes.

"All night, all day, Occupy Tampa Bay," sang one small group of Occupy Tampa supporters that gathered near the viewing tent.

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@ jonward11 : Newt says he went to Goldwater organizing meeting in 1974. Dog whistle!

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@ ArthurDelaneyHP : Romney actually met a man considering self-deportation earlier today http://t.co/RyFXTgP7

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@ MSignorile : The debate is out of this world: "self-deportation," Castro going to "another land" and Mars exploration. #NBCDebate

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Adam Smith, citing a 2005 case that gripped the state of Florida, and, eventually the nation and the federal government, reminds Rick Santorum about his support for the family of Terri Schiavo. Santorum said that the support he offered was sincere, but made sure to indicate that he "did not call for congressional intervention." Rather, he said, "I called for judicial intervention on behalf of the parents," who were from Pennsylvania, and thus, his constituents. Santorum said that his intention was simply to ensure that the judicial process worked as fairly as it could.

Asked if "do not resuscitate" orders were "immoral," Santorum said, "No, I don't think so."

Newt Gingrich added: "We go to extraordinary lengths for people on murderer's row ... Strikes me that having a bias in favor of life and going to a hearing [in Schiavo's case] would have been automatic." He, too, said that citizens maintain the right to manage their own end-of-life circumstances.

Ron Paul, true to form, said, "I would have preferred to see the [Schiavo] decision made at the state level." He added that based on his experience as a doctor, the Schiavo case was "way out of proportion to what happens routinely." But his main emphasis was to say that the case was a moment that should have taught us all the value of living wills.

-- Jason Linkins

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Mitt Romney said part of his immigration policy would involve a Scout's honor system of self-deportation for illegal immigrants. Former Sen. Rick Santorum noted that some people are self-deporting already, because they can't find jobs in the U.S.

As it happens, Romney met a man who said he was considering self-deportation for economic reasons on Monday morning.

Richard Wood of Bradenton, Fla., told Romney he'd folded his title insurance company in October 2010 and that he and his wife had fallen on hard times. "We have been exploring the possibility of moving to another to another country where we might be able to live on our retirement and our Social Security."

"Yeah. It's just tragic, isn't it? Just tragic, just tragic," Romney said.

http://huff.to/xxB14e

-- Arthur Delaney

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Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich got into a game of one-upmanship on Monday when discussing the potential death of Cuba's Fidel Castro, the dictator from whom many Cuban-Americans fled, often to Florida.

"Well first of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to to another land," Romney said to applause from the crowd -- one of the first signs of life from the audience in the debate -- when asked by moderator Brian Williams what he would do if Castro died and Cubans flooded to the United States.

Newt Gingrich went one step further when he was asked the same question.

"I don't think Fidel is going to meet his maker," Gingrich said. "I think he's going to the place."

Romney said he would work with the new leadership in Cuba, then saying there should be more done to help dissidents today. He brought up Wilman Villar, a Cuban dissident who died last Thursday after a hunger strike. Romney put out a statement the day after Villar's death praising him for his "ultimate sacrifice" and stating his "solidarity with Cuba's historic pro-democracy movement."

Rick Santorum said that ending dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela is essential because the nations may collaborate with al Qaeda. Only one candidate disagreed about continuing sanctions on Cuba: Ron Paul, as is typical on foreign policy issues.

"We propped up Castro for 40-some years because we put up these sanctions and this only used us as the scapegoat, he could say anything wrong is the United States' fault," Paul said. "I think it's time to quit this isolationist business of not talking to people."

Republicans are frantically trying to appeal to Latino voters in Florida, which has 1.5 million Latino voters. Romney has endorsements from Cuban-American Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whom he used in a Spanish-language radio ad out today. In that ad, Ros-Lehtinen says Romney "will fight against the despotic efforts of Castro."

Meanwhile, Gingrich has a Spanish-language radio ad saying Romney "goes around using Castro phrases," according to a translation by the Miami Herald, because he once used a phrase associated with Castro.

-- Elise Foley

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@ howardfineman : Beth Reinhard asking solid, straight-ahead, substantive, sharply-worded questions on topics of interest to voters. Who let her into this?!

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@ HuffPostHill : We must attack space before it attacks us.

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@ ryangrim : These debaters sound like they're college sophomores passing a bong around

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@ HuffPostMedia : And we're back! Adam Smith directs the first question to Santorum regarding Terri Schiavo

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@ HuffingtonPost : Romney on Gingrich: "88% of Republicans voted to reprimand the Speaker" #fldebate http://t.co/fBbFn6hT

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Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich found something to agree on: both said it would be an "act of war" if Iran closed the Straits of Hormuz, the vital passage for much of the world's oil supply.

Rick Santorum later jumped on Iran, accusing it of "war-like behavior." Ron Paul, though, made clear he thought the United States was acting the belligerent. What if some other country blockaded the Gulf of Mexico, he asked?

-- Andrea Stone

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@ jonward11 : Newt: "Cain sugar hides behind beet sugar." SCORE!!

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@ howardfineman : This clearly will be known forever as the "self-deportation" debate.

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After six months of presidential debates that have grown increasingly raucus, Monday's presidential debate in Florida had a much more low-key tone.

Following a typical NBC procedure for a debate, moderator Brian Williams asked the audience to hold applause at the start of the 90-minute debate.

The result was a rhythm to the questions and answers that seemed unfamiliar to the candidates and the audience at times, resulting in a few moments of silence when candidates expected applause, but none (or very little came).

-- Christina Wilkie

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How do you win? Well, by beating your opponent, of course. And how do you beat your opponent? By winning.

That tautology was essentially former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's answer when he was asked about how, as commander in chief, he would end the war in Afghanistan without talking to the Taliban.

"By beating them," Romney simply replied to moderator Brian Williams. "By standing behind our troops and making sure we have transitioned to the Afghan military a capacity for them to be successful in holding off the Taliban. Our mission there is to be able to turn Afghanistan and its sovereignty over to a military of Afghan descent, Afghan people that can defend their sovereignty. That's something we can accomplish in the next couple of years."

He criticized President Barack Obama for making it "difficult" for U.S. troops to be successful by: "Number one, announcing a withdrawal date for our troops. Number two, drawing down our surge troops faster than the time the commanders on the ground felt was necessary. You don't draw them down during the middle of the fighting season. And finally, by not overseeing elections in Afghanistan to assure the selection of the president was seen by the people as legitimate."

-- Amanda Terkel

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