JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Newt Gingrich tried to defend his claim that Mitt Romney is “the most anti-immigrant candidate” in last night’s Republican presidential debate here, an accusation that Romney called “inexcusable” and “repulsive.”
Gingrich did not seem to understand that this accusation, made in a Spanish-language radio ad aimed at South Florida’s large Latino population, may actually end up helping Romney win next week’s primary. The controversy stirred by the ad, which Gingrich ordered his campaign to pull off the air, highlights differences of policy — and puts Gingrich clearly to Romney’s left, which isn’t a good place to be in a Republican primary.
After a long discussion of the issue, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich, “I just want to make sure I understand. Is [Romney] still the most anti-immigrant candidate?” The former House Speaker answered: “I think, of the four of us, yes.” This provoked a long response from Romney, who said he favors “enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders,” a position that is not “anti-immigrant.” Romney accused Gingrich of “the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long,” and then invoked the most popular Republican in Florida: “I’m glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. I’m glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it, and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”
Thursday’s debate, the 19th televised debate among Republican presidential candidates this year, certainly did not lack fireworks. And while many political junkies have become weary of watching these affairs, the event here on the campus of the University of North Florida may be as decisive as the South Carolina debates that were credited with helping Gingrich score a crucial win there Saturday. Polls this week in Florida show Romney pulling away, and the former Massachusetts governor had one of his best-ever debate performances Thursday, while Gingrich had one of his worst yet.
While arguments between the two Florida frontrunners got the biggest play, however, Thursday was also an impressive performance for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. Polls show Santorum running a distant third in the Sunshine State, but he slammed both Gingrich and Romney for their previous stances on health care. “This is the top-down model that both of these gentlemen say they’re now against, but they’ve been for, and it does not provide the contrast we need with Barack Obama if we’re going to take on that most important issue,” Santorum said. “We cannot give the issue of health care away in this election. It is too foundational for us to win this election.”
This provoked an extended argument between Santorum and Romney over the so-called “individual mandate” in the health legislation Romney supported in Massachusetts. When Santorum’s criticism of the Massachusetts plan grew heated, Romney replied by saying “it’s not worth getting angry about.” Asked after the debate about that flare-up, Santorum described himself as “passionate,” and his passionate performance won praise from many conservatives, including Guy Benson of Townhall.com: “What a night for the former Pennsylvania Senator … he definitely made a very serious case that he might be the best Not Romney in the race.” Santorum seems unlikely to score the kind of miraculous last-minute surge in the Sunshine State that carried him to victory in the Iowa caucuses three weeks ago, but Thursday’s debate could help him gain support as he seeks to rekindle his campaign’s sense of momentum.
At this point, no candidate in the race has been able to win two consecutive contests. After Santorum edged Romney in Iowa, Romney came back to win convincingly in New Hampshire. But Gingrich won solidly in South Carolina, halting Romney’s momentum. If current Florida polls are accurate and Romney wins here Tuesday, the biggest challenge for Romney’s opponents will be to raise enough money to continue the fight through a long campaign.