TAMPA (CBS4/AP) – The battle for the Republican presidential nomination has moved to Florida where the candidates will spend nine days vying for the votes before the January 31st primary.

Monday night, The four Republican Primary candidates took the stage at the University of South Florida. In no time, rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich exchanged fighting words.

“You’ve been walking around the state saying things that are untrue,” Gingrich told his rival in a two-hour debate marked by occasional interruptions and finger-pointing.

Newt Gingrich’s win in South Carolina over the weekend made for three different winners in the first three states, with former Sen. Rick Santorum winning Iowa and Mitt Romney taking New Hampshire. That makes the Florida primary on January 31st extremely important.

Following his defeat in South Carolina, Romney can ill afford to lose in Florida, and he was the aggressor from the opening moments Monday night. He said 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 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 retorted 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, referring to the $300,000 that Gingrich’s consulting firm received in 2006 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 expressed pride in having supported it. “It has saved lives. It’s run on a free enterprise model,” he said in a state that is home to millions of seniors.

Whatever the stated subject, the debate’s subtext was character — and electability, the quality that Republican voters say consistently matters most to them in the race.

Gingrich said voters don’t want a president who will “manage the decay,” but change the country. “That requires sending somebody who’s prepared to be controversial when necessary.”

Romney pointed to his career in business, his turn as head of the Salt Lake City Olympics and a term as governor of Massachusetts.

Obama took his lumps, as customary in a Republican debate.

Romney said the president lacks a vision for NASA, and said, “There are people on the Space Coast that are suffering and Florida itself is suffering as a result.”

He proposed that “a collection” of academics and private investors consult with the president on a new mission for the space agency and have the program funded jointly by the government and private industry.

Gingrich called that answer “building a bigger bureaucracy” and instead proposed handing out prizes to people who come up with ways to “make the Space Coast literally hum with activity.” Going back to the moon permanently, putting a man on mars and building space stations should be priorities, he said.

When the debate turned to immigration, one moderator noted that Romney and Santorum have said they would veto the “Dream Act,” which would create conditions under which illegal immigrant minors might achieve U.S. citizenship, and asked if Gingrich agreed.

“No, I would work to get a signable version,” he said. “I think any young person brought here by their parents when they were young should have the same opportunity to join the American military and earn citizenship.”

Romney said that was the same as his position.

Moments later, he was asked to reconcile two other statements he has made about immigration, that while he doesn’t want to deport millions of illegal immigrants, he wants them to return to their home countries and apply for citizenship. “The answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home,” he said.

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

The stakes are high for Florida’s 50 delegates because the “winner take all votes.”

(©2012 CBS Local Media, a division of CBS Radio Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

Comments (3)
  1. NewtsArmy says:

    The GOP according to GORP?

    Romney represents The Grand Old “Rockefeller” Party

    Gingrich represents The Grand Old “Reagan” Party

  2. walt says:

    Did I see a different debate! Gingrich looked pretty slimy to me. He looked liked a kid trying to talk his way out of trouble and he thinks his parents are believing him. I didn’t realized huge corporation paid millions of dollars for a good history lesson.That has got to be the biggest bull i ever heard. No I take that back.I ask the house to kick me out as speaker has got to be. No sorry it must be I supported healthcare legislation because I’m such a good citizen and not because I was getting paid bizzillions to do it. He is the biggest liar I’ve ever seen!

  3. Phil Landers says:

    Release the GANGRATCH!!!! (Something silly my brother and I yell when it’s his turn. They are both weasels in our opinions, like most politicians)