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GOP Presidential frontrunners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sparred with each other in the second pre-Florida primary debate Thursday night with disputes over immigration, housing and their personal finances.
Romney showed his anger openly when he chastised Gingrich for a Spanish language radio ad that called the former Massachusetts governor anti-immigrant.
“The idea that I am anti-immigrant is repulsive. You should apologize,” Romney told Gingrich. The former speaker of the house, under fire from within GOP circles for the tone of the ad, pulled it.
Romney went after Gingrich for his fat-cat consulting deal with housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, saying he should have blown the whistle on the agencies’ problems rather than taking the cash and promoting them.
Gingrich responded by criticizing Romney for owning stock in both plus Goldman Sachs.
Romney shot back: “Have you checked your own investments? You have investments in mutual funds that hold the same stocks.”
The focus on Romney and Gingrich got under the skin of the two other candidates in the race: former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
“These two gentlemen are distracting from the most important issues we have,” Santorum said while Paul responded to a question from moderator Wolf Blitzer about the connections that Gingrich and Romney have with the housing industry with “the subject really doesn’t interest me a whole lot.”
A panel of debate watchers formed by Capitol Hill Blue felt Romney scored better in the debate than Gingrich.
The panel noted that Gingrich was far from the powerful debater who dominated the South Carolina confabs. He was at time listless and let several opportunities to seize an issue pass by.
Gingrich’s lackluster so confounded his surrogates that they had no explanation when questioned by reporters following the debate.
“I don’t know,” former Senator and presidential candidate Fred Thompson — who endorsed Gingrich earlier in the week — said when asked why Gingrich seemed to be off his game.
Romney scored another establishment Republican endorsement before the debate, getting the nod from former Senator and Presidential candidate Bob Dole, who noted that most of those who worked with Gingrich in Congress are not supporting his run for President.
Having Gingrich at the top of the Republican ballot in November would hurt other GOP candidates and would not be “in the best interests of the party or the country,” Dole said.