With five days to go before the all-important Florida primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich again squared off with rival Mitt Romney on immigration, housing foreclosures, — and a continuing series of personal attacks against each other — in the final presidential debate from the Sunshine State.
While there did not appear to be a clear winner in Thursday night’s debate, Gingrich appeared to score points with the Jacksonville audience when he challenged the line of questioning being pursued by CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer — an approach that resonated well during the last two GOP debates in South Carolina.
Republican strategist Bradley A. Blakeman told Newsmax immediately following the debate that neither candidate scored a homerun. “I think Romney didn’t hit it out of the park but standing up to Newt, Romney counter punched Newt on immigration.”
But the big fireworks again revolved around the media.
No sooner had former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum complained that Gingrich and Romney were “distracting” from the important issues by “playing petty personal politics,” Blitzer asked whether Gingrich was satisfied with the level of transparency that Romney demonstrated in releasing two years of his tax returns earlier this week, something that Romney had resisted doing.
“Wolf, you and I have a great relationship. It goes back a long way,” Gingrich began. “I’m with him [Santorum]. This is a nonsense question. How about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we’ll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America.”
Blitzer pressed Gingrich, saying that he made Romney’s finances a campaign issue. Gingrich had described Romney as living in a “world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts,” according to Blitzer.
Gingrich sought to draw a distinction between the types of questions that are acceptable in a television interview compared with those that rise to the level of being appropriate for a presidential debate.
“I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show but this is a national debate where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues,” he counterpunched.
Santorum simply threw up his hands and shrugged when asked by Gingrich if he cared to revisit his earlier statement. Santorum’s earlier comments had actually fueled the exchange between Gingrich and Blitzer.
“Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies — and that’s not the worst thing in the world — and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he’s going out and working hard? And you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues.”
Neither candidate got any help from Romney, who regained a slight edge over Gingrich in recent Florida polls.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” asked the former Massachusetts governor to a cacophony of applause and boos.
All four of the candidates weighed in on immigration, an issue particularly relevant in Florida, with its large population of Hispanic voters.
“I think that, first of all, you should control the border, which I pledged to do by Jan. 1 of 2014,” said Gingrich. “You should fix legal immigration in terms of visas so people can come and go easily — more easily — than doing it illegally. You should also make deportation easier.”
Gingrich called for a guest-worker program run by a private company such as American Express, Visa or MasterCard to minimize fraud, and stronger employer penalties for hiring undocumented workers.
With respect to illegal immigrants “who have been here a very long time, who are married, who may well have children and grandchildren,” Gingrich said it was not likely that such people would voluntarily return to their native countries.
“I would just suggest the grandmothers or grandfathers aren’t likely to self deport,” he explained, proposing that a “citizen panel” consider granting residency but not citizenship to illegal aliens who had been in the country for a long time with an American family willing to sponsor them. “ I don’t think grandmothers and grandfathers will self deport,” he insisted.
Romney would make no such exceptions but insisted that he had no interest in “rounding up” the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
“For those who come into the country legally, they would be given an identification card that points out they’re able to work here. And then you have an E-Verify system that’s effective and efficient so employers can determine who’s legally here,” said Romney. “And if employers hire someone without a card, or without checking to see if it’s been counterfeited, then those employers would be severely sanctioned.”
Romney took issue with Gingrich’s assertion he was the most anti-immigrant candidate in the GOP field and that his immigration policy would make no distinction between recent illegal immigrants and grandmothers and grandfathers who have established roots in the country.
“What I said was, ‘people who come here illegally do not get a work permit,’ ” Romney countered. “Those who don’t get work will tend, over time, to self deport. I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them. Those are your words, not my words. And to use that rhetoric suggests to people that if you’re not willing to keep people here who violated the law, that you're anti-immigrant.”
Texas Rep. Ron Paul who hails from the state with the longest U.S. border with Mexico, said he believes that immigration should be treated as an economic issue. “You can’t deal with immigration without dealing with the economy. The weaker the economy, the more resentment that there is when illegals come in,” he said. “if you have a healthy, vibrant economy it’s not a problem. We’re usually looking for workers. Even under today’s circumstances, a lot of businesses are looking for workers and they don’t have them.”
He also suggested that America could divert some of its overseas resources to the issue of border control “I think we spend way too much time worrying about the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Use some of those resources on our own border,” he said to applause.
Santorum said that the bottom line of his presidency would be to enforce existing immigration laws.
“People who have come to this country illegally have broken the law repeatedly,” he said. “You’ve probably stolen someone’s Social Security number illegally. And so it’s not just one thing that you’ve done wrong. You’ve done a lot of things wrong. And as a result of that I believe that people should not be able to stay here. I think we need to enforce the law at the border, secure the border.”
Santorum also said he favors employer enforcement of the E-Verify system along with sanctions for undocumented workers and their employers.
“We need to have employer enforcement which means E-Verify and then we need to have not only employers sanctioned, but ... people found who are working here illegally need to be deported,” said Santorum.
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