Gingrich takes a pounding in Jacksonville

The debate began with the topic of immigration, wasting ten minutes on Romney's comment from the USF debate earlier in the week about undocumented immigrants "self-deporting," a concept that has never happened, and doubtfully ever will.

Cuba came up as it did on Monday, and the answers were no different in J-Ville than they were at the Fowler Avenue campus. Ron Paul, who consistently provided needed comic relief throughout the evening, dared to say the U.S. should conduct trade with the Communist island, while the other candidates fought each other to prove how much they hated the Castro regime.

But this debate will be remembered for how Romney went after Gingrich, and how Gingrich retreated, sometimes feebly. After Rick Santorum got a huge cheer by castigating Blitzer for asking questions of the two that had nothing to do with the issues the nation cared about, Gingrich tried to ride that wave, but Wolf would have none of that,

Tax returns — let me bring this to Speaker Gingrich.

Earlier this week, you said Governor Romney, after he released his taxes, you said that you were satisfied with the level of transparency of his personal finances when it comes to this. And I just want to reiterate and ask you, are you satisfied right now with the level of transparency as far as his personal finances?

GINGRICH: Wolf, you and I have a great relationship, it goes back a long way. I'm with him. This is a nonsense question.


GINGRICH: Look, how about if the four of us agree for the rest of the evening, we'll actually talk about issues that relate to governing America?

BLITZER: 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." 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.

BLITZER: But if you make a serious accusation against Governor Romney like that, you need to explain that.

GINGRICH: I simply suggested —


GINGRICH: You want to try again? I mean —

ROMNEY: Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they weren't willing to defend here?


GINGRICH: OK. All right.

Another knock-out punch for Romney was when Gingrich's wild proposal to have a permanent base on the moon by the end of his second term in office was discussed. When asked what he thought of the idea, Romney hit it out of the park.

ROMNEY: I spent 25 years in business. 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 idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea. And we have seen in politics — we've seen politicians — and Newt, you've been part of this — go from state to state and promise exactly what that state wants to hear. The Speaker comes here to Florida, wants to spend untold amount of money having a colony on the moon. I know it's very exciting on the Space Coast.

In South Carolina, it was a new interstate highway, and dredging the port in Charleston. In New Hampshire, it was burying a power line coming in from Canada and building a new VHA hospital in New Hampshire so that people don't have to go to Boston.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending.

That response may not win Mittens much Tea Party love, but who is acting more fiscally conservative in that exchange?

Speaking of love, Rick Santorum is feeling some of that today from the punditocracy, impressed by his performance just hours after he had to fend off reports that he was ending his Florida campaign. Santo hammered away at Romney for what many conservatives have always considered his ultimate Achilles heel, his universal health care plan in Massachusetts that Obama officials have said they studied and used as a blueprint for what the president signed into law in 2010.

It's the individual mandate provision of the law that particularly inflames conservatives, which dictates that Americans must buy health insurance or pay a fine. Santorum challenged Romney if this was the case in Massachusetts. Romney never answered yes, although in fact, that is the case.

SANTORUM: Does everybody in Massachusetts have a requirement to buy health care?

ROMNEY: Everyone has a requirement to either buy it or pay the state for the cost of providing them free care. Because the idea of people getting something for free when they could afford to care for themselves is something that we decided in our state was not a good idea.

SANTORUM: So, in Massachusetts...


SANTORUM: Just so I understand this, in Massachusetts, everybody is mandated as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, to buy health insurance, and if you don't, and if you don't, you have to pay a fine.

What has happened in Massachusetts is that people are now paying the fine because health insurance is so expensive. And you have a pre-existing condition clause in yours, just like Barack Obama.

So what is happening in Massachusetts, the people that Governor Romney said he wanted to go after, the people that were free-riding, free ridership has gone up five-fold in Massachusetts. Five times the rate it was before. Why? Because...

ROMNEY: That's total, complete...

SANTORUM: I'll be happy to give you the study. Five times the rate it has gone up. Why? Because people are ready to pay a cheaper fine and then be able to sign up to insurance, which are now guaranteed under "Romney-care," than pay high cost insurance, which is what has happened as a result of "Romney-care."

ROMNEY: First of all, it's not worth getting angry about. Secondly, the...


ROMNEY: Secondly, 98 percent of the people have insurance. And so the idea that more people are free-riding the system is simply impossible. Half of those people got insurance on their own. Others got help in buying the insurance.

Look, I know you don't like the plan that we had. I don't like the Obama plan. His plan cuts Medicare by $500 billion. We didn't, of course, touch anything like that. He raises taxes by $500 billion. We didn't do that.

He wasn't interested in the 8 percent of the people that were uninsured. He was concerned about the 100 percent of the people of the country. "Obama-care" takes over health care for the American people.

If I'm president of the United States, I will stop it. And in debating Barack Obama, I will be able to show that I have passion and concern for the people in this country that need health care, like this young woman who asked the question.

But I will be able to point out that what he did was wrong. It was bad medicine, it's bad for the economy, and I will repeal it.

None of the Republicans have truly been held to account for what they will do after they repeal the health care law. It should be interesting to see how popular it would be to allow insurance companies to go back to rejecting people with pre-existing conditions, for example.

As we go into the weekend, Romney's stock is up, Santorum's stock is surprisingly up, and Gingrich is going down. A new poll released Friday morning by Quinnipiac has Romney at 39 percent to Gingrich's 29 percent.

Mitt Romney got the best of Newt Gingrich in last night's CNN debate from Jacksonville, and the question remaining for the next four days of the presidential campaign in Florida is: Can Newt recover by Tuesday?

Thursday began horribly for Gingrich, and never got better. Plastered on the front screen of the Drudge Report were all types of links to stories about Republicans from the ’80s and ’90s getting in their punches against the former House Speaker.

Bob Dole, Tom DeLay and Elliot Abrams were among those who trashed Gingrich in statements, with the latter trying to destroy the idea that Gingrich is truly a "Reagan conservative," the phrase he has used interminably throughout the campaign.

And then there was the debate itself, where Romney made sure to pack the University of North Florida’s Lazzara Performance Hall with supporters, neutralizing the advantage that Gingrich had in South Carolina when he was firing broadsides at the media and the "Massachusetts moderate."

Although undoubtedly Romney won the debate, he had his embarrassing moments, such as when moderator Wolf Blitzer busted him on not knowing the content of one of his own ads — an ad with a tagline that said "I'm Mitt Romney, and I approve this ad."

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