By DAVID ESPO, ASSOCIATED PRESS
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An aggressive Mitt Romney repeatedly challenged Republican presidential rival Newt Gingrich in a fast-paced campaign debate Thursday night, ridiculing the former House speaker's call to build costly projects in key primary states and to colonize the moon.
Romney vehemently denied Gingrich's own accusation that he anti-immigrant – more so than any other candidate. And, as charges flew back and forth, Gingrich rebutted any suggestion that he couldn't rein in surging federal spending.
"You don't just have to be cheap everywhere. You can actually have priorities to get things done," Gingrich declared, saying that as speaker of the House he had helped balance the budget while doubling spending on the National Institutes of health.
The debate was the second in four days in the run-up to next Tuesday's Florida primary. Opinion polls make the race a close one – slight advantage Romney – with two other contenders, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind.
Gingrich's upset victory in the South Carolina primary last week upended the race for the nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall, and Romney in particular can ill-afford a defeat on Tuesday.
While the clashes between Gingrich and Romney dominated the debate, Santorum drew applause from the audience when he called on the two front-runners to stop attacking one another and "focus on the issues."
"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress ... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he said in a tone of exasperation.
There were some moments of levity, including when Paul, 76, was asked whether he would be willing to release his medical records. He said he was, then challenged the other three men on the debate stage to a 25-mile bike race.
He got no takers.
The first clash occurred moments after the debate opened, when Gingrich responded to a question by saying Romney was the most anti-immigrant of all four contenders on stage. "That's simply inexcusable," the former Massachusetts governor responded.
"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant, my father was born in Mexico," Romney declared. "I'm not anti-immigrant."
At the same time, Romney noted that Gingrich's campaign had been pressured to stop running a radio ad that called Romney anti-immigrant after Florida Sen. Marco Rubio called on Gingrich to do so.
He called on Gingrich to apologize for the commercial, but got no commitment.
About an hour later, Romney pounced when the topic turned to Gingrich's proposal for an permanent American colony on the moon – an issue of particular interest to engineers and others who live on Florida's famed Space Coast.
A career businessman before he became a politician, Romney said: "If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, `You're fired.'"
The audience erupted in cheers, but Romney wasn't finished.
He said the former speaker had called for construction of a new Interstate highway in South Carolina, a new VA hospital in northern New Hampshire and widening the port of Jacksonville to accommodate the larger ships that will soon be able to transit the Panama Canal.
"This idea of going state to state and promising people what they want to hear, promising hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into trouble in the first place," Romney said.
Gingrich responded that part of campaigning is becoming familiar with local issues, adding, "The port of Jacksonville is going to have to be expanded. I think that's an important thing for a president to know." He went on to refer to completion of an Everglades project that he did not describe, then noted he had worked to expand NIH while he was speaker.
Below, HuffPost's live blog coverage of the debate.
Democratic National Campaign Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued a statement in response to Thursday night's GOP debate, but limited her criticisms to one candidate and one issue: Mitt Romney and his propensity for lying.
"We've known for some time now that Mitt Romney will say anything to get elected -- but tonight was truly a breathtaking display of dishonesty. After trying to cater to Hispanic voters this week, Romney kept up the doublespeak tonight -- trying to downplay his extreme positions on immigration and acting as if he had never said that undocumented workers and their families should be rounded up and kicked out of America.
"Romney continues to try to have it both ways on every issue under the sun. Tonight, he lied about not voting for a Democrat if there was a Republican on the ballot -- there was when he voted for Paul Tsongas in a Democratic primary in 1992 in the same election where President George H.W. Bush faced Pat Buchanan. He lied about never saying his Massachusetts health care plan was a model for the nation -- the truth is that he's often said it was. And tonight he even tried to distort the President's strong record of commitment to Israel, claiming that President Obama has not addressed rocket attacks on Israel before the United Nations when in fact he explicitly did so -- and when the President has actually visited Sderot and affirmed Israel's right to defend itself.
"Tonight, Romney called his enormous personal wealth 'an asset to help America.' But there's just one complication: he's not investing in America. He has had millions in investments and accounts in infamous offshore tax havens -- including the Cayman Islands and a Swiss bank account that his advisor closed down for fear it would be politically embarrassing. Those tax havens cost American taxpayers about 0 billion a year. And the hundreds of millions of dollars he raked in at Bain were made in part by laying off American workers and outsourcing their jobs to other countries.
"Mitt Romney must not realize we live in the age of Google, YouTube and DVR -- because he literally shifts from one position to the next without any sense of restraint. It's time for Romney to try something new and finally give the American people the straight answers they deserve -- that’s certainly not what he offered on the debate stage tonight."
-- Jennifer Bendery
It was hard not to notice that the debate audience in Jacksonville, Fla., on Thursday night enthusiastically cheered Mitt Romney's performance. That was a big change from the two debates last week in South Carolina, where Newt Gingrich got raucous applause from massive debate crowds in Myrtle Beach and Charleston.
After the debate ended, Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, wrote on Twitter: "Hidden story of this debate: Why was audience more pro-Mitt & less pro-Newt than others? JAX was pro-Mitt '08, but must be more to it."
HuffPost asked the Florida Republican Party's spokesman, Brian Hughes, how the tickets to the debate were allocated.
Hughes said the state party was responsible for 900 of the 1,200 tickets, and said he "bristled" at any suggestion the audience was stacked in anyone's favor.
"The vast majority of [the tickets] went to rank and file. We did a very thorough job of getting them to the rank and file, vetting them to make sure they went to registered Republicans, and then making sure they went out to people that were not knowingly affiliated" with any of the candidates, Hughes said.
"We worked very hard to ensure that the room was rank-and-file folks who represent the electorate that these guys are trying to speak to," Hughes said.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom was asked after the debate if the campaign had worked to get supporters in the crowd. Fehrnstrom said he had invited his parents, who live in Jacksonville.
"The campaign was given an allotment of tickets," Fehrnstrom said. "I don't know how many tickets they received. I assume it's the same as every other campaign."
-- Jon Ward
"As a Palestinian-American Republican, I can tell you that such people do exist," a member of the audience told the GOP candidates at Thursday's debate, referring to Newt Gingrich's comments in December that the Palestinians are an "invented people."
But if the man asking the question hoped his presence would goad the candidates into moderating their pro-Israel positions, he was surely disappointed.
"The reason there's not peace between the Palestinians and Israel" is that the Palestinian leaderships in the West Bank and Gaza "have the intent to eliminate Israel," Mitt Romney said.
Romney further rehashed his view that Obama "threw Israel under the bus" by calling for a two-state solution that would be based on Israel's borders before the 1967 War, which resulted in Israel's annexing all of Jerusalem and occupying the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The 1967 borders have long been the basis for the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Gingrich explained his earlier comments by saying that the Palestinian people was "technically an invention of the 1970s," which he claimed supplanted a general Arab identification that had been prevalent in the region.
In recent weeks, Gingrich-supporting super PACs have received million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife. Adelson is known for his hard-right views on Israel and strong support for Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Both Romney and Gingrich criticized President Obama for appeasing Israel's foes and not sufficiently supporting the Jewish state.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Obama said, "Our ironclad commitment — and I mean ironclad — to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history."
-- Mike Sacks
The famous author of best-selling children's and young-adult novels took to Twitter to send a single debate-related tweet to her 49,000 followers:
@judyblume I just can't stand these candidates!
-- Dave Jamieson
|@ jonward11 : Ari Fleischer says Romney showed a bit of "Alpha Dog" tonight|
|@ jonward11 : Romney says in short post-debate interview: "When I'm shot at I'll return fire. I'm no shrinking violet."|
Each of the four Republican candidates explained in Thursday night's debate why his wife would make a great first lady.
Ron Paul gave a brief answer, referencing his 54-year marriage to Carol Paul and their upcoming anniversary, as well as his wife's cookbook, "The Ron Paul Cookbook."
Mitt Romney was next, and he told moderator Wolf Blitzer, "My wife is a real champion. She was diagnosed with MS and breast cancer," and as first lady "she'll be able to reach out to people who are suffering with compassion and care." Romney also mentioned his wife Ann would likely encourage young people to get married before having children.
Newt Gingrich began by complimenting the other three candidates' spouses, and said his wife is "not necessarily better," but she "brings a couple of things." He went on to describe his third wife's musical talents -- playing French horn, singing in a choir -- and said she "would bring a really strong feeling for music education and for art and why it matters to people" as first lady. He also mentioned her children's book about American exceptionalism and the movies she has produced with Gingrich. "She would bring an artistic flair" and he would "be thrilled to hang out with her at the White House," Gingrich said.
Rick Santorum gave the most eloquent answer of the four, saying his wife wasn't at the debate because "she's doing what she does, incredibly well, which is to be a mother to our seven children and she is -- she's my hero."
"She was a neo-natal intensive care nurse, one of the most advanced nurseries in the country ... and she saw all the ethical challenges there, she went on and got a law degree to deal with those in the legal world."
He also mentioned the child he and his wife lost, as well as their daughter Bella, who has a developmental disability. "We've been through a lot together, losing a child, having a child with a disability ... and the amount of love for these special kids is just palpable."
Santorum also claimed to know that "hundreds of lives that were saved," because people read the book about their lost child, "Letters to Gabriel," and "realized that the child they were carrying had the dignity to be loved and nurtured irrespective of what malady may have befallen that baby in the womb and so many children were born and are alive today because of that book."
-- Christina Wilkie
|@ HuffPostHill : TONIGHT'S WINNER: Not Newt Gingrich. TONIGHT'S LOSER: Newt Gingrich.|
|@ BuzzFeedBen : Santorum: "Global warming hoax." Haven't heard him say that before.|
|@ howardfineman : Newt finally mentions Saul Alinsky... about time...|
|@ AnthonyNBCNews : Asked why he can beat Obama @RonPaul: My position undermines his foreign policy; it's different, he expands war #fldebate|
Wolf Blitzer asked about the ongoing debate over whether Gingrich and Romney have been stalwart supporters of Ronald Reagan, prompting this response from Gingrich:
"Its increasingly interesting to watch the Romney attack machine coordinate things. All of a sudden today there are four different articles by four different people that randomly show up," Gingrich said, noting the fusillade of (digital) ink that has come at him the last 24 to 36 hours.
He said that Reagan's son, Michael, endorsed him and that former First Lady Nancy Reagan spoke of him as carrying Reagan's torch forward.
"I am vastly closer to Reagan," Gingrich said.
He added that Romney donated to Democrats in 1992 and voted for Democratic Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.
"He's more mature. He's more conservative. I accept that," Gingrich said of Romney. "I think it's a good thing. But those of us who were in the trenches fighting in the '80s, it would be nice to be recognized for what we actually did, and not to have orchestrated attacks that try to distort the history of that period."
Romney could only say: "I've never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot."
-- Jon Ward
|@ howardfineman : tentative final score: Santorum 9.0, Mitt 8.4, Newt 4.4, Paul 2.0|
|@ acarvin : Santorum: no other country in the world is based on God-given rights, not govt-given rights. (Can I get a #factcheck, pls?) #cnndebate|
An unemployed Floridian in the audience named Lynn asked the candidates what their policies could do to help her get affordable health insurance again. The candidates offered her a host of long-term solutions and big-picture theories in return.
Rep. Ron Paul told her she was the victim of government meddling. "When government gets involved in medicine, you don't [get] better care -- the cost goes up," Paul said. "You're suffering from the consequences of way too much government."
Asked how he'd help Lynn, Gingrich was the first to beat the Obamacare horse. "Repeal Obamacare, repeal Dodd-Frank," the former House speaker said, referring to the financial reform bill. "Give her a chance to have a job ... You combine reforming our insurance system and getting the economy growing again, you cure an awful lot. She is not dependent on Barack Obama to take care of her."
Although his health care overhaul in Massachusetts served as a model for the president's, Mitt Romney, too, grabbed at the opportunity to bash "Obamacare" when asked how his policies could help Lynn. "It's bad medicine," he said of the Affordable Care Act. "The president has failed the American people." Meanwhile, as he has before, Romney admitted that his own plan enacted in Massachusetts was "not perfect," though he said most residents approved of it.
As much as Romney tried to distance "Romneycare" from "Obamacare," Santorum clearly relished drawing a line between the two.
"What he just said is top-down government-run medicine is working pretty well in Massachusetts," Santorum said.
Romney's plan, Santorum went on, has "15 items in common with Obamacare ... 1 in 4 people in Massachusetts don't get the care they need. This is the top-down model that both of these gentlemen" -- Romney and Gingrich (who has voiced support for the individual mandate) -- "say they're against but have been for."
"We cannot give the issue of health care away in this election," Santorum added.
Romney, perhaps taken aback by Santorum's passion, responded, "It's not worth getting angry about...."
-- Dave Jamieson
|@ MSignorile : Newt loves his "secular elite" bashing. #CNNdebate|
|@ zachdcarter : Romney: Declaration of Independence describes "the relationship between God and Man." #Uhhhhh|
|@ HuffPostHill : These guys are smart. The electoral votes they'll garner from Puerto Rico and the Moon will really help them in the general.|
HuffPost's Sam Stein reported earlier this month that Ron Paul has a staffer in Puerto Rico, which awards more delegates than New Hampshire:
Puerto Rico is not often considered an active political enclave. It has no representation in Congress, save a non-voting delegate. And with respect to presidential campaigns, it is usually an afterthought. Both John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama visited only after they won office. In the race for delegates in the 2012 Republican primary, however, it will carry twice as much weight as all-critical New Hampshire in the process of determining the nominee.
Click here to read more.
BLITZER: Congressman Paul. You said the U.S. should talk to everyone. Imagine you're in the Oval Office, you speak to Raul Castro on the phone. What would you say to him?
PAUL: [pause] Well ... I'd ask him what he called about, you know?
Ha. Nice. Paul continued, "I would ask him, what can we do to improve relations? Because I wouldn't see them as likely to attack us. When I was drafted in October of '62, that was a different world, I mean, there were nuclear weapons in Cuba. That was a different story. But today, to not to talk to them and take the call and see what you can work out, helps Castro. It hurts the people, the dissidents, the people who want to overthrow him ... as well intended as these sanctions are, they almost inevitably backfire and they help the dictators and hurt the people. So, it's time to change. The Cold War, the Cold War is over. They're not going to invade us and I just think that a better relationship and trade relationship [is preferable]."
-- Jason Linkins
|@ mpoindc : Santorum gives shout-out to Luis Fortuño. Gotta wonder if the other three candidates knew Fortuño is the GOP gov of Puerto Rico.|
|@ BenjySarlin : Fun fact: Rep. Justin Amash, Ron Paul's heir in the House, is a Palestinian-American Republican|
|@ samsteinhp : three people applauded when santorum name-dropped the puerto rican governor|
|@ MSignorile : Romney just goes right to bashing Palestinians right to a Palestinian-American's face. #CNNdebate|
When Newt Gingrich boasted that Congress balanced the budget four times when he was House Speaker, Ron Paul pounced.
"I went back and looked at the record. The national debt during those four years actually went up about a trillion dollars. What he's talking about is he doesn't count the money he takes out of Social Security," Paul said. "So [neither] Reagan nor you had a truly balanced budget, because the national debt goes up and that's what we pay the interest on."
Gingrich responded: "Under the system that was used, we were 5 billion in balance."
At this point, the audience began to boo Gingrich.
"I agree with Ron. Let me finish," Gingrich said testily. "I actually agree with you and I have proposed that we take Social Security off budget."
The Paul campaign sent out a release moments later with the headline: "Another Fudged Fact By Newt: 'I balanced the budget.'"
FACT: The National Debt went up nearly trillion while he was Speaker · In 1994, the year before Gingrich become Speaker the National Debt was .693 trillion · In 1995, the year he become speaker the debt was .974 trillion · In 1996 the debt was $ 5.225 trillion · In 1997 the debt was .413 trillion · In 1998-- the last year of his speakership-- the debt was .526 trillion
(Source: Treasury Direct.gov)
-- Jon Ward
|@ HuffPostHill : "As a Palestinian American Republican" God Bless America.|
|@ MSignorile : MItt is talking about Castro leaving the planet again. This is a pattern. #CNNdebate|