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A confident Romney zings Gingrich in Republican debate No. 19 (+video)

MItt Romney was ready to answer questions about his wealth and to rebut rival Newt Gingrich during Thursday's Republican debate, the last before the Florida primary on Tuesday.

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Blitzer asked Gingrich if he was satisfied with Romney’s level of transparency over his tax returns. Gingrich called it “a nonsense question.”

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“But Mr. Speaker, you made an issue of this this week when you said that he lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts,” Blitzer said.

“If you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that,” the moderator added, leaving Gingrich no choice but to reply. Romney thus had his opening: “I think it’s important,” he told Gingrich, “for people to make sure that we don’t castigate individuals who’ve been successful.”

Romney also channeled his inner Donald Trump when the discussion turned to the idea of building a moon colony, one of Gingrich’s pet proposals. The former speaker, in a bid for support from voters around Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, suggested that the government spur private-sector investment in space by offering prizes.

“I spent 25 years in business,” Romney said. “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.’ ”

The immigration issue also loomed large in the debate, in a state with a fast-growing Latino population. The day before, Gingrich was scolded by the state’s most prominent Latino politician – Republican Sen. Marco Rubio – for running a radio ad that described Romney as the most “anti-immigrant” candidate. Gingrich took the ad down.  

When Blitzer raised the issue, Romney called the idea that he’s the most anti-immigrant candidate “inexcusable,” noting that his father was born in Mexico (albeit to American parents, which he didn’t point out). “The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive,” he said.  

Gingrich may still win points among Florida’s Latino Republicans for advocating leniency with older illegal immigrants who have been in the country a long time. But Romney had a retort: “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.”

Romney’s performance was not without mistakes. When asked about a radio ad by his campaign that said Gingrich had called Spanish “the language of the ghetto,” Romney said he didn’t think that ad came from his campaign. After a few moments, Blitzer indicated that CNN had checked, and that it was indeed a Romney ad. Gingrich asserted that the statement had been taken out of context.  

The other two candidates on stage, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, had their moments. Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, skewered Romney over his reform of the Massachusetts health-care system, which is the model for Obama’s reform. And he delivered emotional responses to questions about how his religious beliefs would affect his presidency and why his wife would make a good first lady.

“She’s my hero,” Santorum said.

Congressman Paul of Texas, who is not competing in the Florida primary, got a laugh over a question about his health.

“I'm willing to challenge any of these gentlemen up here to a 25-mile bike ride any time of the day – in the heat of Texas,” Paul said to cheers.  

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