In the crucial final debate before Tuesday's Florida Republican primary, the candidates faced off at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. Moderated by CNN's Wolf Blitzer, conversation ranged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to building colonies on the moon (yes, this was discussed for, like, 15 minutes) to whose wife would make the best first lady. And instead of criticizing President Obama, the candidates mostly focused on attacking one another. Here are the highlights.
1. Newt Gingrich Vies for the Immigrant Grandmother Vote
In a section on illegal immigration, Gingrich and Mitt Romney sparred over amnesty. Romney doubled down on his view that sharply restricting employment opportunities would encourage the "self-deportation" of undocumented immigrants, while Gingrich argued that those who have been in the United States for a long time should be able to get residency — especially the grandmothers, whom he repeatedly cited as an example.
The idea that you are going to push them out in some form by simply saying they can't go get a job — I think the grandmother is still going to be here. All I want to do is to allow the grandmothers to be here legally with some rights to have residency but not citizenship, so that [they] can finish their life with dignity within the law.
An exasperated Romney shot back: "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers."
2. Wolf Blitzer Calls Out Mitt Romney
When Blitzer asked Romney to explain a radio ad from his campaign, which claimed that Gingrich had called Spanish "the language of the ghetto," Romney feigned ignorance, saying he knew nothing about such an ad. The debate moved on. But later, Blitzer came back to Romney with a real-time fact-check:
Governor, that ad that we talked about, where I quoted you as saying that Speaker Gingrich called Spanish "the language of the ghetto" — we just double-checked. It was one of your ads. It's running here in Florida on the radio. And at the end you say, "I'm Mitt Romney and I approved this ad."
After the audience reaction of "Ooooooooohhh!" settled down, Romney tried to deflect the matter by simply asking Gingrich if he'd said it. Gingrich claimed his remarks, which concerned his position that all Americans should learn English, were taken out of context.
3. Gingrich's "Attack the Media" Strategy Fizzles
When Blitzer asked Gingrich whether he was satisfied with the release of Romney's tax return — an issue that he had drawn attention to for weeks — Gingrich tried to shame the moderator, grumpily dismissing it as a "nonsense question." But Blitzer stood by the question (and Romney, of all people, backed him up):
Blitzer: 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." I didn't say that. You did.
Gingrich: I did. And I'm perfectly happy to say that on an interview on some TV show. But this is a national debate, where you have a chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.
Romney: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?
Once Gingrich dropped his righteous-indignation gimmick, Romney went on to say that a trustee manages his investments in a blind trust. That trustee diversified his investments by putting money in a Swiss account, on which he paid taxes.
4. Nobody Answers Lynn Frazier's Question
A woman from the audience named Lynn Frazier was allowed to ask a question. Identifying herself as unemployed and unable to afford health insurance, she asked the candidates what hope can they offer people like her. For a woman with no money and no job, their solutions:
Ron Paul: When I was growing up … medical-care costs weren't that much. Medical-care insurance should be given to you as an individual, so if you're employed or not employed, you just take care of that and you keep it up.
Gingrich: She ought to get the same tax break whether she buys personally or whether she buys through an [employer]. She should also be able to buy into an association so that she's buying with lots of other people so it's not single insurance.
Romney: [Currently] if you change jobs, you've got to get a new insurance company, most likely. And if you become unemployed, you lose your insurance … What we should do is allow individuals to own their own insurance and have the same tax treatment as companies get.
Rick Santorum: All three of these folks sound great, and I agree with them. I would just add that health savings accounts, which I introduced 20 years ago with John Kasich, is really the fundamental reform of getting consumers back involved in the health care system.
5. Paul Tells Santorum to Calm Down About Cuba
When asked what their position as president would be on Cuba, Santorum criticized President Obama for opening up ties to Cuba, claiming that it rewards Fidel Castro and aids "the jihadists who want to set up missile sites and set up training camps" in Cuba. (Huh?) Paul had a less panicked approach:
The Cold War is over. They're not going to invade us, and I just think that a better relationship and trade relationship [would help the people of Cuba]. Since I've been talking about this issue the last four of five years, I think the people have changed their mind. The American people are getting much more open. Not nearly as frightened. And I don't think they see a jihadist under the bed every night.
Who do you think performed best in Thursday's GOP debate?
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.