The four remaining candidates for the U.S. Republican Party's presidential nomination met in a sometimes heated debate in Jacksonville, Florida, Thursday ahead of that state's January 31 primary.
The debate quickly produced fireworks on issues like immigration and foreign bank accounts. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney reacted angrily to former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich calling him anti-immigrant.
“I think you should apologize for it and I think you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epitaphs,” Romney said.
Romney noted that his father was born in Mexico and he defended his immigration plan as one that favors legal immigration, but strengthens the enforcement of laws designed to prevent illegal entrants from getting jobs.
Gingrich struck back by saying that he would not favor any policy that would force older people, many of them grandparents who have lived in the United States for many years, to leave the country.
Gingrich said “All I want to do is allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights to have residency, but not citizenship, so that he or she can finish their life with dignity within the law.”
Romney countered by saying “You know, there are not 11 million .. the problem is not 11 million grandmothers.”
The two front-runners also sparred over Gingrich's attacks on Romney's investments, including funds in foreign bank accounts, which Romney defended as being in a blind trust not directly under his control.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum chided both candidates for taking their focus off the more important issues facing the country.
“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 is not the worst thing in the world and that Mitt is a wealthy man because he went out and worked hard and you guys should just leave that alone and focus on the issues” he said.
There were some questions from the audience about foreign policy issues, including the Middle East peace process, but the sharpest divide resulted from Texas Congressman Ron Paul's response to a question about U.S. relations with Latin America.
“I believe that with friendship and trade you can have a lot of influence and I strongly believe that, with time, we have friendship and trade with Cuba,” he said.
The other three candidates expressed disagreement with Paul. In Florida the large Cuban exile community has traditionally supported strong measures against the communist government of Cuba. Many Cuban-Americans also call for more U.S. engagement in Latin America to offset both Cuba and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Recent polls have shown a tight race between Romney and Gingrich, both of whom have been campaigning actively in Florida ever since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary on January 21, upsetting Romney's status as frontrunner. Voters in Florida go to the polls next Tuesday to decide which candidate they think should run against President Barack Obama in November's presidential election.