The four remaining candidates for the Republican Party's presidential nomination met for a testy debate in Florida late Monday, just one week before a crucial primary vote in that southern state.
There were a number of heated exchanges during the NBC debate between the two top contenders, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
It was a combative debate from the start. Romney went after Gingrich’s record as speaker of the House of Representatives in the 1990s, saying he resigned in disgrace.
Romney also attacked Gingrich for working as what he called “an influence peddler” when he was a consultant to the government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which critics say contributed to the U.S. housing crisis.
Romney said he was being more aggressive after being attacked in last week’s South Carolina primary, which Gingrich won.
Romney said, “I had incoming from all directions and was overwhelmed with all of the attacks and I am not going to sit back and get attacked day-in and day-out without returning fire.”
Gingrich fired back, accusing Romney of spreading falsehoods about his background and recalling statements from Romney rivals in the 2008 presidential campaign who charged that the former Massachusetts governor “can’t tell the truth.” Gingrich said, “You know there is a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty and that is sad."
Foreign policy also played a role in this latest debate with all four Republican contenders weighing in on whether President Barack Obama has been weak in his dealings with Iran.
Romney said Iranian threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, a vital route for global oil supplies, amounts to an act of war. “It is appropriate and essential for our military, our Navy, to maintain open seas,” he said.
Gingrich said Americans were not interested in a war with Iran but said the president’s policies have emboldened Iran’s leadership. “I think there is a very grave danger that the Iranians think that in fact this president is so weak they could close the Strait of Hormuz and not suffer substantial consequences,” he said.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the U.S. must be prepared to use force to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. “Obama’s Iran policy has been a colossal failure,” he said.
The only dissenting voice on Iran policy was that of Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who said there was no justification for the U.S. to use military force against Iran.
“No, the people are not ready. We don’t have any money," he said. "We have too many wars and the people want to come home and we certainly don’t want a hot war in Iran right now.”
The next major test in the race for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination is next Tuesday’s Florida primary. There have been three different winners in the three Republican contests so far - Rick Santorum won in Iowa, Mitt Romney in New Hampshire and Newt Gingrich in South Carolina.
The series of state primary and caucus votes will continue until June, followed in August by the Republican convention, which will officially pick the Republican who will run against President Obama in November's general election.