JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — This time it was Mitt Romney's turn to play the outrage card and draw big applause early in a crucial debate.
In the final candidate face-off before Tuesday's Florida Republican presidential primary, Romney ripped a Gingrich proposal to colonize the moon as pandering to Space Coast voters.
On Gingrich's space proposal, Romney said: "I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.'"
Ron Paul was pithier.
"I don't think we should go to the moon," Paul said. "I think we should send some politicians there sometimes."
Gingrich defended the idea.
"I thought we were a country where one of the purposes of candidates going around was to actually learn about the states they campaigned in and actually be responsive to the needs of the states they campaign in," Gingrich replied. He mentioned expanding the port in Jacksonville and Everglades restoration.
"It is possible to do the right things in the right order to make this a bigger, richer, more exciting country," Gingrich said. "You don't just have to be cheap everywhere."
Romney quickly and repeatedly grabbed the offensive against chief rival Newt Gingrich on immigration and on Gingrich's consulting work for troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Romney also offered a forceful defense of his wealth and investments, accusing Gingrich of raising the issue elsewhere but being reluctant to confront him in person.
After losing to Gingrich in last week's South Carolina primary, Romney also came out aggressively in a debate Monday night in Tampa. But Thursday night's debate at the University of North Florida had a different feel because the audience was permitted to clap and cheer while the Tampa crowd was instructed to remain silent.
The crowd often seemed to be on Romney's side Thursday, just as Gingrich got the crowd on his side early during two debates in South Carolina.
While the Romney-Gingrich fisticuffs dominated much of the debate, Rick Santorum turned in one of his strongest performances so far, blasting both frontrunners for their past support for an individual mandate to buy health insurance.
Sparks first flew Thursday night over the Gingrich campaign's Spanish-language radio ad that called Romney "anti-immigrant." Gingrich pulled the ad this week after Sen. Marco Rubio complained about it.
"Mr. Speaker, I'm not anti-immigrant. 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 repulsiveI'm glad Marco Rubio called you out on it," Romney said, eagerly mentioning Florida's most popular Republican official.
Gingrich defended the pulled ad, saying Romney's immigration proposals could result in grandmothers and grandfathers being deported.
"You know, our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Romney said, again drawing applause. "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have."
Gingrich hit Romney over his radio ad that said Gingrich had called Spanish "the language of the ghetto."
After initially saying he wasn't aware of the ad, Romney was told by CNN moderator it was in fact a product of his campaign.
"Did you say what the ad says or not? I don't know," Romney said to Gingrich.
"It's taken totally out of context," Gingrich said.
"Oh, OK, he said it," Romney said.
Romney also repeated his criticism of Gingrich for doing consulting work for troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac. Gingrich pointed out that Romney had investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but Romney said the investments were in a blind trust that he didn't control.
When Gingrich was asked about making an issue of Romney's investments in a Swiss bank account and the Cayman Islands, Gingrich dismissed it as a "nonsense question."
Pressed by moderator Wolf Blitzer, Gingrich said: "I was perfectly happy to say that in an interview with some people but this is a national debate."
"Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?" Romney shot back.
Santorum was at his most forceful when he blasted both Romney and Gingrich on health care, saying neither could challenge President Obama on the issue because both supported an individual insurance mandate in the past.
"We cannot give the issue of health care away in this election. It is too foundational," Santorum said.
"Everyone is mandated as condition of breathing in Massachusetts to buy health insurance," he said. "If people don't buy health insurance, they are fined. That is the essence of Obamacare," he said.
Santorum also produced the night's most emotional moment in response to a puff question about why each candidate's wife would make a good first lady.
Santorum, who has seven living children, choked back tears when he talked about the loss of an infant son and his wife's efforts to help others deal with
a similar tragedy by writing a book about his death.
Gingrich stirred the political pot with his answer to a question about what Hispanics the candidates would put in Cabinet-level posts.
After other candidates ticked off various names, including former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, longtime U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and Rubio, Gingrich provoked cheers among those who were gathered in Miami and participated in the debate via television with his answer: "I thought of Mr. Rubio for a much more dignified and significant role than as a member of the cabinet."