JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sparred over illegal immigration here Thursday night, with the former Massachusetts governor saying it was “repulsive” for the former House speaker to have characterized him as “the most anti-immigrant” candidate in the GOP presidential race.
The clash took place at the opening of the final debate before Tuesday’s high-stakes Florida primary and reprised a long-running argument between the two leaders in the Republican contest. Earlier this week, Gingrich withdrew a political ad that had applied the “anti-immigrant” label to Romney, but when asked whether he believed that description was accurate, he said he did.
That brought rebuke from Romney. “I’m not anti-immigrant,” he said. “My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. It’s simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long.”
Gingrich responded by noting that Romney earlier had harshly attacked him for suggesting that illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for a quarter century or longer should be given the opportunity to become legal residents, though not citizens.
On Thursday, Romney conceded that he is not advocating rounding up such people. “I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their home,” he said.
The candidates then turned to Gingrich’s work as a consultant for the housing agency Freddie Mac. The former speaker said again that his contract called for no lobbying, and then charged that Romney had significant investments in Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Romney said his investments had been made through a blind trust and that in contrast, Gingrich had acted as a spokesman.
“What he was clearly doing was promoting … Freddie Mac to the tune of $1.6 million,” the former governor said.
Thursday’s debate was the 19th of the season for the Republican candidates. Held at the University of North Florida, the forum was aired on CNN and moderated by the network’s Wolf Blitzer. In addition to Romney and Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas participated.
The Florida primary will be a high-stakes battle that neither Gingrich nor Romney can afford to lose. Gingrich arrived riding the momentum from his victory last Saturday in South Carolina but polls here show a very close race. Gingrich, stung by the attacks from his opponent and a super PAC backing Romney, has lashed back with some of his angriest rhetoric of the campaign.
On Thursday morning, campaigning in Mount Dora, the former speaker accused Romney and the Republican establishment of slinging “mud” and “junk” because “they’re against change in Washington.”
Using the word “stupid” at least a dozen times to describe how Romney views voters, Gingrich said his rival’s negative ads about Gingrich’s consulting work for Freddie Mac are dishonest and hypocritical, and represent a desperate attempt by the establishment to block Gingrich’s campaign.
“Well, I’m here as a citizen, and I frankly don’t care what the Washington establishment thinks of me because I intend to change them,” Gingrich said, prompting cheers and chants of “Newt! Newt! Newt!” from a crowd estimated at 1,500 people.
Gingrich continued: “We have to ultimately focus on beating President Barack Obama, but we’re not going to beat Barack Obama with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs while it forecloses on Florida and is himself a stockholder in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac while he tries to think the rest of us are too stupid to put the dots together to understand what this is all about.”
Romney’s campaign responded with a press release mocking Gingrich as “Dr. Newt and Mr. Hyde” — the latter, they said, showed up at the Mount Dora event — and accused him of leading an “Occupy Mount Dora” rally against free enterprise. Composed almost entirely of quotes from news accounts of the event and other Gingrich attacks on Romney’s wealth, the release included just one quote from a Romney staffer: “Wow,” said communications director Gail Gitcho.
The Mount Dora rally was one of several Gingrich events in Florida that have attracted big crowds. He drew 2,500 in Sarasota and 5,000 to Naples earlier this week. At the same time, he has consolidated the support of 42 tea party groups statewide, a potentially important boost to his candidacy.
Jose Mallea, Gingrich’s Florida director and the former campaign manager for one of the tea party’s earliest stars, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s departure from the race and Santorum’s poor showing in South Carolina contributed to the groups’ decision to rally behind Gingrich.
“The tea party was still fractured last week,” Mallea said. “Some of them were with Perry, some of them were with Santorum. Not many of them were with Romney, but they weren’t sure where they were going to go.”
The anger on display was reminiscent of Gingrich’s posture in the days before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, when the pro-Romney PAC was hammering him with millions of dollars in negative ads. Gingrich’s hot rhetoric and two strong debate performances turned South Carolina around a week ago.
Romney’s campaign added another wrinkle to its efforts to hector Gingrich. Three House members — Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, Connie Mack of Florida and Mary Bono Mack of California — have begun to shadow Gingrich across Florida, showing up at his events to provide real-time rebuttals, to demand that the former speaker explain his work for Freddie Mac and to spread the Romney message.
“It’s laughable for him to cast himself as an outsider,” Chaffetz said. “He could not get elected speaker of the House right now. He is an unreliable leader who was pushed out the door. He has more scandal surrounding his personal life and his professional life than we should have in our nominee.”
Also Thursday, former Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., using Gingrich’s description of Romney, said it was “pious baloney” for the former speaker to say that he did not lobby Republican lawmakers in 2003 to pass a new Medicare prescription drug benefit.
Gingrich argued that the sum total of the attacks amounted to a desperate gasp by the Republican establishment. “Remember: The Republican establishment is just as much as an establishment as the Democratic establishment, and they are just as determined to stop us,” Gingrich said at Thursday’s rally.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.