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Romney and Santorum Shine in Final Florida Debate

12:30 AM, Jan 27, 2012 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Between Sunday and Wednesday, Newt Gingrich went from leading Mitt Romney by 8 points to trailing Mitt Romney by 8 points in the Florida GOP primary polls. Thursday night's debate in Jacksonville was Gingrich's best opportunity--and most likely his only--ahead of Tuesday's primary to reverse Romney's momentum. But far from landing a knockout blow, it was Gingrich who was thrown back on his heels.

Santorum and Romney

Romney got the better of Gingrich from the start when the two sparred over immigration. "Speaker Gingrich, you've suggested that self-deportation as advocated by Governor Romney is in your words, 'An Obama level fantasy,'" CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer said. "Why?" 

Gingrich backed down from his attack somewhat, saying he agreed self-deportation will occur among those who are single and have recently immigrated. "I would just suggest that grandmothers or grandfathers aren't likely to self-deport,“ he said. But Romney came back forcefully, explaining he had no desire to round up 11 million illegal immigrants but wanted crack down on employers. "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,” he said. 

And then Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich to defend a TV ad calling Romney "anti-immigrant." Though his campaign had already taken the ad down, Gingrich defended it. "That's inexcusable. And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate," Romney shot back. "The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive." The whole scene was reminiscent of the moment Rick Perry accused his opponents on immigration of being heartless. 

From there on out Romney generally delivered a strong performance. He gave a solid defense of Israel and even free-market health care. Gingrich's attack on Romney for owning stock in Freddie Mac also fell flat when Romney pointed out that Gingrich too owned such stock. Though, in defending a standard practice politicians employ to avoid ethical conflicts, Romney may have sounded out of touch. "I have a trustee that manages my accounts in a blind trust,” he said. 

The worst moments for Romney came when Rick Santorum tore into both Romney's and Gingrich's records on health care: 

The problem with the answers from Congressman Gingrich and Governor Romney is that, well, they didn't always say what they're saying. Governor Romney was the author of Romneycare, which is a top-down government-run health care system which, read an article today, has 15 different items directly in common with Obamacare, everything from the increase in the Medicaid program, not just that government is going to mandate you buy something that's a condition of breathing, mandate that you buy an insurance policy, something that Governor Romney agreed to at the state level, something Congressman Gingrich for 20 years advocated, that the federal government can force each and every person to enter into a private contract. Something that everyone now, at least up on this stage, says is radically unconstitutional, Congressman Gingrich supported for 20 years. 

Governor Romney supported it in the state, a state that is a -- pretty much a model for what Obamacare is going to look like -- the highest health care costs in the country, 27 percent above the average, average waiting time -- 94 percent of the people in Massachusetts are now insured, but there was just a survey that came out and said one in four don't get the care they need because of the high cost. So, you have a card, you're covered, but you can't get care. 

This is the top-down model that both of these gentlemen say they're now against, but they've been for, and it does not provide the contrast we need with Barack Obama if we're going to take on that most important issue. We cannot give the issue of health care away in this election. It is too foundational for us to win this election. 

As Santorum and Romney began to go back and forth, Santorum became impassioned and Romney sounded a little peevish. "Five times the rate it has gone up" in Massachusetts, Santorum said. "Why? Because people are ready to pay a cheaper fine and then be able to sign up to insurance, which are now guaranteed under Romneycare, than pay high cost insurance, which is what has happened as a result of Romneycare." 

"First of all, it's not worth getting angry about," Romney said. "Secondly, 98 percent of the people have insurance. And so the idea that more people are free-riding the system is simply impossible. Half of those people got insurance on their own. Others got help in buying the insurance."

Santorum was also strong on foreign policy and the role of faith in public life. He criticized Gingrich and Romney for "distracting from the most important issues we have" by "playing petty personal politics." As the last candidate to deliver closing remarks, his blistering critique of Romney and Gingrich went without rebuttal. 

"I agree with the previous two speakers that this is a big election. This is an election about fundamental freedom. It's about who America is going to be. Are we a country that's going to be built great from the bottom up, as our founders intended, or from the top down?" he asked. "I just think I'm a lot better than the previous two speakers to be able to make that case to the American people. I'm not for a top- down government-run health care system. I wasn't for the Wall Street bailouts like these two gentlemen were."

"Cap and trade -- both of them bought into the global warming hoax, bought into the cap and trade, top-down control of our energy and manufacturing sector," he continued. "The center point of my campaign is to be able to win the industrial heartland, get those Reagan Democrats back, talking about manufacturing, talking about building that ladder of success all the way down so people can climb all the way up. That's why I'm the best person to be able to go out and win the states that are necessary to win this presidency and govern with the mandate that Newt just talked about."

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