Reporting Ted Scouten
MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) – Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich once again traded blows at a Jacksonville GOP debate which aired on CNN Thursday night.
Romney aggressively and repeatedly challenged rival Gingrich in the fast-pace debate Thursday night just before a Florida primary that could be pivotal in the GOP presidential race. He rebuffed criticism of his own stance on immigration and ridiculed the former House speaker’s call to build costly projects in key primary states and to colonize the moon.
Gingrich in return rebutted any suggestion that he wasn’t the man to rein in 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.
CNN, the Republican Party of Florida, and the Hispanic Leadership Network are hosting the presidential debate which will feature Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and Congressman Ron Paul.
Gingrich had a lot of ground to gain after suffering in the polls following Monday’s debate in Tampa, which according to him, was because the crowd was instructed to not cheer during the debate.
The debate was the 19th since the race for the Republican nomination began last year, and 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.
Gingrich also raised questions about Romney’s wealth and his investments. “I don’t know of any American president who’s had a Swiss bank account,” Gingrich said. Romney replied that his investments were in a blind trust over which he had no control. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” declared Romney, who has estimated his wealth at as much as $250 million.
Earlier Thursday, it was disclosed that Romney and his wife, Ann Romney, failed to list an unknown amount of investment income from a variety of sources including a Swiss bank account on financial disclosure forms filed last year. His campaign said it was working to correct the omissions.
Gingrich also failed to report income from his 2010 tax return on his financial disclosure. The former Georgia congressman will amend his disclosure to show $252,500 in salary from one of his businesses, spokesman R.C. Hammond said.
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