Hispanics in focus as Republican race intensifies
JACKSONVILLE, Florida (AP) - More than a million Hispanic voters are the prize as Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich resume campaigning Friday after a feisty, final debate before Florida's primary on Tuesday.
Romney was the surprise aggressor in the second debate in four days Thursday night, pressing Gingrich to apologize for an ad labeling him as anti-immigrant. "That's simply inexcusable" and "repulsive," Romney said. "My father was born in Mexico. I'm not anti-immigrant."
Both men arranged for appearances Friday with the Hispanic Leadership Network. Florida has roughly 1.5 million Hispanic voters, who figure to play prominently in the largest and most diverse primary so far in the state-by-state nominating process to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
Tuesday's primary could focus a race whose lead has bounced often among candidates who have been helped by their performances in the many debates, which have had an unusually large role in shaping the campaign. The latest polling Friday showed Romney again moving ahead of Gingrich, with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Texas Rep. Ron Paul far behind.
The latest debate was the 19th since the race for the Republican nomination began last year, and the race has largely narrowed to Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, and Romney, a former Massachusetts governor.
Republicans must decide who is the most likely to beat Obama, who remains vulnerable as the slow recovery from the Great Recession drags on and unemployment remains high. The president this week has been trying to draw attention from the Republican race with a campaign-style swing through western states that have primaries in the coming weeks.
In the days since Romney's loss in South Carolina last weekend, he has tried to seize the initiative, playing the aggressor in the debate and assailing Gingrich in campaign speeches and a TV commercial. An outside group formed to support Romney has spent more than his own campaign's millions on ads, some of them designed to stop Gingrich's campaign momentum before it is too late to deny him the nomination.
With polls suggesting his South Carolina surge is stalling, Gingrich unleashed a particularly strong attack earlier Thursday. But after riding his feisty performances in past debates to popularity, he struggled to find an effective attack in the evening's debate and was more often on the defensive.
Romney, who has a new debate coach, took the offensive. "When I'm shot at, I'll return fire," he said moments after the debate ended. "I'm certainly no shrinking violet."
Immigration sparked the first clash moments after the debate opened, when Gingrich responded to a question by saying Romney was the most anti-immigrant of all four contenders on stage. "That's simply inexcusable," Romney responded.
Romney's father was born in Mexico among a colony of Mormon pioneers but returned to the U.S. with his family when he was 5 to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution.
Gingrich fired back that Romney misled voters by running an ad accusing the former House speaker of once referring to Spanish as "the language of the ghetto." Gingrich claimed he was referring to a multitude of languages, not just Spanish.
Romney initially said, "I doubt it's mine," but moderator Wolf Blitzer pointed out that Romney, at the ad's conclusion, says he approved the message.
Romney pounced when the topic turned to Gingrich's proposal for a permanent American colony on the moon - an issue of particular interest to engineers and others who live on Florida's famed Space Coast.
A career businessman before he became a politician, Romney said: "If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"
Gingrich tried to raise questions about Romney's wealth and his investments, which have been in the spotlight this week after Romney released his 2010 tax return and estimate for 2011. "I don't know of any American president who's had a Swiss bank account," Gingrich said.
Romney replied that his investments were in a blind trust over which he had no control. "There's nothing wrong with that," declared Romney, who has estimated his wealth at as much as $250 million.
The libertarian Paul has already made clear his intention to skip Florida in favor of smaller, less expensive states. And the conservative Santorum, who had been campaigning aggressively in Florida, conceded Thursday that he's better off sitting at his own kitchen table Saturday doing his taxes instead of campaigning in a state where he simply can't keep up with the front-runners.
Despite the shift, Santorum stood out at times Thursday night.
While the clashes between Gingrich and Romney dominated, Santorum drew applause when he called on them to stop attacking one another and "focus on the issues."
"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress ... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he said in a tone of exasperation.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)