GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (Pic by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

The four remaining GOP presidential candidates took to the stage at Jacksonville’s University of North Florida on Thursday night, discussing immigration, space travel and the housing crisis. Among the hot topics were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Spanish as a “language of the ghetto” and, well, grandmothers.

Newt Gingrich, hoping to capitalize on his recent debate showings, was often overshadowed by Mitt Romney, whose recent hire of a new debate coach seemed to pay off.

Much like Monday’s debate, the candidates stuck to a variety of topics especially important to Floridians.

The first clash occurred only moments after the debate began, with Gingrich slamming Romney’s “self-deportation” idea, saying that he didn’t expect “grandmothers and grandfathers [to] self-deport.”

Romney fought back, using one of Florida’s most popular Hispanic Republicans to defend himself against Gingrich’s claims in a Spanish-language radio ad that he is “anti-immigrant.”

“That’s simply unexcusable. That’s inexcusable,” Romney said to Gingrich. “And, actually, Sen. Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate. … This is the type of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics for too long, and I’m glad that Marco Rubio called you out for it. … I think you should apologize for it. Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is 11 million people with jobs that Americans, legal immigrants would like to have.”

Saying that disobeying the law “is not a particularly welcome way to enter this country,” Rick Santorum argued that, if elected, he would work to secure the border, enforce E-Verify and deport those found to be working in the country illegally.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul called Romney’s self-deportation idea “not very practical,” arguing that a healthy, vibrant economy would lessen the illegal immigration problem. “We need more resources for our border,” he said, adding that perhaps resources currently being used on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border could be better put to use “on our own border.”

Though he was applauded for his immigration stance, Romney was called out over one of his ads criticizing Gingrich for deeming Spanish “the language of the ghetto.”

A sheepish Romney admitted that he was unfamiliar with the ad, which was paid for by his political campaign and features his endorsement.

“Did you say what the ad says or not? I don’t know,” Romney asked Gingrich.

“It’s taken totally out of context,” said Gingrich.

“Oh, OK, you said it,” Romney responded.

“No,” Gingrich said. “I said in general, about all languages, it was better for children to learn English, in general, period.”

Gingrich appeared to regain footing when discussing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, but his shots at Romney’s investments ultimately backfired.

“So maybe Gov. Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments,” Gingrich said.

Romney, not offering much to dissuade critics who call him “elitist,” argued that he doesn’t even make his own investments (they are in a blind trust), but he did score big points against Gingrich when he pointed out that the former Speaker has the same investments.

“First of all, my investments are not made by me,” said Romney. “My investments for the last 10 years have been in a blind trust, managed by a trustee. Secondly, the investments that they’ve made, we’ve learned about this as we made our financial disclosure, have been in mutual funds and bonds. I don’t own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds. And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Romney also pounced on Gingrich over a proposal for a permanent American colony on the moon — an issue of particular interest for those living on Florida’s Space Coast.

“If I had a business executive come to me and say, ‘I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon,’ I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’” said Romney.

Paul also ripped Gingrich’s proposal, joking that maybe politicians be sent to the moon instead.

Gingrich scored some points for his defense of local issues — like Everglades restoration projects and an expansion project at Jacksonville’s port — but, overall, his debate performance drew far less applause than Romney’s.

Florida holds it’s crucial, winner-take-all primary next Tues., Jan. 31.

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