Politics

Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul Exchange Punches in Jacksonville Debate

By: Kevin Derby | Posted: January 26, 2012 11:55 PM
CNN Presidential Debate

Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul

With a combination of attacks on President Obama and each other -- and with the Florida primary looming on Tuesday -- the four remaining candidates for the Republican presidential nomination made their case on a wide range of issues Thursday night before a receptive audience at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich exchanged barbs throughout the debate -- but each received heavy fire from former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who argued that both of them were too close to Obama on issues such as health care and energy policies.

The stakes were high. Romney currently leads in most polls of Florida, with Gingrich in second and Santorum in third. U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is downplaying Florida, stands in fourth.

The debate -- the 19th of the campaign cycle and the last one before the Florida primary -- was moderated by Wolf Blitzer and carried on CNN in partnership with the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network.

IMMIGRATION

The debate started with a question from the audience on illegal immigration -- with Blitzer asking the candidates about Romney’s comment about “self-deportation” in the Tampa debate on Monday.

“We need to enforce the law at the border, secure the border," Santorum said, calling for a crackdown on businesses that hire illegal aliens and pushing for a greater use of the E-Verify system.

Gingrich also called for “much stronger employee penalties” and a crackdown on illegal immigration, including using private-sector companies which, he suggested, are better in fighting fraud than the federal government. Gingrich also called for “citizen panels” to weigh in on illegal immigrants who will not leave voluntarily.

Romney said he backed greater penalties for businesses that hire illegal aliens and said his "self-deportation” idea would work.

Paul called for pulling money sent abroad to secure the border with Mexico.

“The way we’re handling our border hurts our economy,” Paul said. “We don’t have a well-managed border.”

Asked by Blitzer if he thought that Romney was the most anti-immigrant candidate, Gingrich said yes.

“That’s inexcusable,” Romney fired back, noting his father was born in Mexico and stressing that U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had defended his record. “The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”

Gingrich and Romney continued to spar over immigration, with Romney insisting he is for legal immigration. Santorum and Paul sat on the sidelines as the two front-runners clashed -- including over a Romney campaign ad slamming Gingrich on the issue. Gingrich insisted his plan would help elderly illegal immigrants spend their final years with dignity.

“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney replied.

Gingrich stressed he supports English as the official language of the government. 

“Every young American should learn English,” he said, insisting it would help them find jobs and become successes in America.

Romney said he backed “English immersion in schools” and supported it becoming the national language.

LATIN AMERICA

The debate then turned toward Latin American affairs and America’s relationship with nations in that region.

Paul called for increased free trade between the United States and Central and South American countries, including Cuba.

Santorum said he opposed Paul’s position on Cuba and took aim at Obama’s policies in that region

“Our policies in Central and South America under this administration have been abysmal,” Santorum said, accusing Obama of “siding with the leftists, siding with the Marxists.” Santorum specifically cited Obama’s reaction to the 2009 ouster of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, an ally of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez.

Paul responded that Santorum’s policies would backfire and that the United States should not impose democracy in the region.

“No one’s talking about force,” Santorum fired back, continuing his attack on Obama for sitting on free-trade agreements with Colombia and Panama.

FANNIE AND FREDDIE

The debate then turned to housing and the roles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Romney noted that Gingrich had worked for Freddie Mac and should have done more to warn Americans about the “housing bubble” he said it helped cause.

Gingrich fired back, noting that Romney had invested in both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and asked how much his rival had made on foreclosed homes. “My investments are not made by me,” Romney responded, pointing out that his investments are handled by a blind trust -- and that Gingrich had also invested in the two entities.

The sparring continued between the two. Romney continued to hammer Gingrich for working for Freddie Mac. Gingrich fired back on Romney’s investments and defended his role with Freddie Mac.

Paul said the two bodies “should have been auctioned off” and said the Gingrich-Romney conflict “didn’t interest” him. He called for a smaller role for the federal government in housing finance. 

Santorum noted that he had signed onto a letter in 2006 calling for major reform to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The former senator slammed the focus on “petty personal politics” and demanded more attention to other issues. “Can we leave that alone and focus on the issues?” demanded Santorum.

The debate then turned to transparency -- including personal tax returns.

“This is a nonsense question,” Gingrich said.

Blitzer followed up, noting Gingrich made “serious accusations” against Romney. Gingrich tried to change the topic, saying that the accusations were made in a talk show and not a nationally televised debate. Romney jumped in, saying that candidates should be on the same page -- leading Gingrich to note that no American president ever had money in a Swiss bank account like Romney did. Romney defended his investments.

TAX PLANS

The debate then turned to taxation. Gingrich said he backed an “alternative flat tax” and ripped into Obama’s taxation policies. He called for “shrinking the government to fit the revenue.”

Santorum said he opposed higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans, noting that revenue is needed in the private economy rather than the government. He said he opposed the flat tax but backed a “simplified tax code.”

Paul called for the elimination of the 16th Amendment -- which established the federal income tax -- and pledged to reduce the “welfare” and the “warfare” states.

PERSONAL HEALTH

The congressman was asked if he would released his medical records due to his age of 76 years -- older than any president in American history.

“There are laws against age-discrimination,” Paul laughed, before challenging his rivals to a bike race "in the heat" of a Texas afternoon.

“Watching him campaign, he’s in good shape,” Gingrich added, praising Paul’s stamina.

All the candidates agreed to make their medical records public.

SPACE ISSUES

The debate turned to manned space exploration. Noting that the Space Coast was “badly hurt” by Obama’s NASA policies, Romney jabbed Gingrich’s call for a manned post on the moon as being costly.

Gingrich said NASA is not helping provide solutions. He called for more prizes and competition to restart American space exploration.

Santorum called for better ties with the private sector in rebuilding space exploration, though he noted that the federal government needs to be cut and new programs should not be added.

“We’ve got to be responsible in how we allocate resources,” Santorum said.

Paul again injected humor into his answer.

“I don’t think we should go to the moon,” Paul said. “I think we should send some politicians up there.”

Paul then said he opposed federal spending for most space projects.

“We don’t need a bigger and newer program,” Paul said, calling for more of a role for the private sector in space.

Gingrich insisted his plans would be “90 percent private sector” and warned the United States is in danger of losing its leadership in space to China.

Romney took the opportunity to again attack Gingrich, noting that anyone who proposed a moon colony in the private sector would be fired. Romney followed up, accusing Gingrich of pandering in each and every state. Gingrich fired back, insisting that presidential candidates have to learn about the areas they visit -- pointing to helping Jacksonville’s port ready for the Panama Canal expansion and Everglades restoration.

Santorum and Paul piled on Gingrich. The Texas congressman jabbed Gingrich’s claims about balancing the budget while Santorum hit the former congressional leader, insisting he will expand government.

HEALTH CARE

Asked by a woman in the audience about health care, who said she'd lost her health insurance when she lost her job, all four candidates tried to stress their differences with the health-care law Obama signed in 2010.

Paul slammed the cost of insurance, insisting that it had gone up with more government money flowing into the industry. Gingrich called for “repealing Obamcare” and “real health reform,” relying on the free market. Romney said Paul and Gingrich were “spot on” and stressed that lowering unemployment would help many Americans. Taking off the gloves, Romney ripped into Obama, insisting the Democrat incumbent is all talk and no action.

Santorum said he agreed with the others and pushed health saving accounts, though he jabbed Romney’s record in signing a health-care law in Massachusetts that he insisted was a model for Obama’s plan. Santorum also took aim at Gingrich, saying he'd backed individual mandates during his years in Congress.

“We cannot give the issue of health care away in this election,” Santorum said, arguing that Gingrich and Romney were too close to Obama’s position on the issue.

Gingrich replied that Santorum was “lumping” him with Romney and said he no longer backs a mandate requiring individuals to purchase health insurance. Romney defended his law in Massachusetts, maintaining the issue should be left to the states and vowing he would “repeal Obamacare.”

Santorum, however, continued pounding Romney for backing “top-down government-run medicine” -- just like Obama. The former senator noted that he backed a proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that would allow Floridians to opt out of the federal law and that he had won the endorsement Thursday of one of its sponsors -- Florida state Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood.

Romney attempted to defend his law, but Santorum -- going after “Romneycare” -- tore into him, noting that the law imposed an individual mandate with fines.

Romney continued to defend the Massachusetts law, insisting that it did not raise taxes and repeated his promise to repeal Obama's health-care law.

“What he did was wrong; it’s bad medicine and it’s bad for the economy,” Romney said.

“Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama’s mandate,” Santorum retorted.

“I think they’re all wrong,” Paul said, insisting again that government had too large a role. “The government isn’t our solution.”

Offering a final word on the subject, Gingrich called for “rethinking from the ground up” on the issue.

HISPANICS

Asked if he would name any Hispanics to the Cabinet, Santorum praised Rubio.

Gingrich hinted that he would consider Rubio as a running mate but also praised New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and Florida U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Romney said he was also open to adding Rubio to the ticket and also praised Martinez, Ros-Lehtinen, former Florida U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez and the Diaz-Ballard brothers from South Florida.

Paul said he would not mention any individuals, but added that the Hispanic community did not back American interventionism.

The debate then turned to lighter matters as Blitzer asked the candidates about why their wives would make a wonderful first lady. All of the candidates praised their wives.

REAGAN'S HEIR

The gloves came off again with the next question as Blitzer demanded to know if Romney could “claim the Reagan mantle.” Romney responded that during the Reagan years he was not involved in politics and stressed his role in running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

“I became more conservative when I was governor,” said Romney, whose father, former Gov. George Romney of Michigan, made a run for president in 1968 and served in the Nixon Cabinet.

“I am vastly closer to Reagan,” Gingrich said, noting that he had worked with Reagan and had the backing of Michael Reagan. Gingrich also said Romney had backed Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primaries.

Romney insisted that he always backed Republicans when they were on the ballot.

CUBA

A Jacksonville resident asked the candidates about their trade policies with Cuba. Santorum said he opposed expanded trade with Cuba and attacked Obama’s policies, arguing that they are strengthening tyrannical regimes in Latin America. The former senator maintained that Cuba and Venezuela had ties with the “jihadists” in the Middle East.

Paul called for better relations with Cuba, insisting that the Castro regime was bolstered by sanctions. 

“It’s time to change,” Paul said. “The Cold War is over.”

Romney took aim at Obama’s policies.

“The president has largely ignored Latin America,” Romney said, calling for more trade with Panama and Colombia. He vowed to push for “the gift of freedom” when Castro dies.

Gingrich slammed Obama as well, insisting the president “cannot bring himself to look south to see a Cuban Spring.” Citing the policies Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II used against the Soviet bloc, Gingrich called for following their example in Cuba.

MIDDLE EAST

A Palestinian-American demanded to know what the Republican candidates would do on the peace process in the Middle East.

Romney blamed the Palestinian leadership for containing activists who want to eliminate Israel and said Obama “threw Israel under the bus” in the peace process.

Gingrich defended his comment that Palestinians were an “invented people” and slammed their leadership for continuing to back attacks against Israel. He vowed to move the American embassy to Jerusalem.

PUERTO RICO

In response to a Miami woman's question about Puerto Rican statehood, Santorum took the opportunity to give a "shout out" to Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno, who'd gone unmentioned in the earlier question about possible Hispanic Cabinet members. He then cited his record while in the Senate of working to improve Medicaid on the island and his role in hurricane relief there.

On statehood, he said he backed “self-determination” for Puerto Ricans -- U.S. citizens since 1917. He called for free-market solutions to improve the economy of Puerto Rico.

ROLE OF RELIGION

The candidates were asked if their religious beliefs would impact their performance in the White House.

Paul said his religious beliefs shaped his “character” but was more concerned with the oath of office.

Pointing to the Founding Fathers, Romney said religion was important in American life.

Gingrich said religion “should be a part of who you are” and said “there was increasingly aggressive war against religion, particularly against Christianity” in America launched by secular liberals.

Quoting the Declaration of Independence and saying he supports “faith and reason,” Santorum said faith is important in his life and to the nation, contrasting America’s “God-given rights” with other nations who saw “government-given rights.”

THE BEST MAN TO WIN

Blitzer’s last question was demanding to know why the candidates thought they were the best candidate to beat Obama.

Paul pointed to polls, noting he was doing well when matched against Obama. He insisted his record on civil liberties, foreign policy and the free market would match up well against the Democrat incumbent.

“This is not an average election,” Romney said, insisting that the nation stood at a crossroads. Romney said he could “scale back the size of government” and fight for the free market. He noted that he was a businessman who never served in Washington.

Gingrich noted that he took part in major Republican victories -- Reagan's in 1980 and the congressional takeover he led in 1994 -- and said he could continue that winning record. He vowed to fight for freedom with “an American campaign” that would stand against big government.

Santorum said this election will be “about who this country is going to be.” He slammed Gingrich and Romney for backing government bailouts of the private sector and stood for “top-down government health care.” Santorum added that both Romney and Gingrich backed “the global warming hoax.” Insisting that he could “win the industrial heartland,” Santorum said he could win back the Reagan Democrats -- and beat Obama in November.



Reach Kevin Derby at kderby@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.






 










Comments (1)

Aaron
2:29AM JAN 27TH 2012
Dr Paul was very impressive. I will be switching my vote to this Gentleman.

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