Gingrich fought back repeatedly, arguing that he has bigger ideas and a greater willingness to shake up Washington than his rivals do. He protested when Romney hit him, saying, “You’re very quick to draw the widest possible exaggeration.” He said he is a more natural heir to the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
Gingrich held his own but he did not have the kind of dominating performance that marked his appearances in two South Carolina debates. In contrast, Romney, who was less impressive in those forums, stepped up at a critical moment in the Florida campaign.
The tension between the two contenders was evident throughout the evening, confirming how significant the next several days could be in the race. Gingrich arrived here with momentum from his victory in South Carolina, but polls show the contest is extremely tight heading into the weekend.
The friction between Romney and Gingrich overshadowed another strong performance by former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) and several lively comments from Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).
The debate, held at the University of North Florida and aired on CNN, was the 19th of the season for the Republicans. It came on a day when Gingrich had launched some of his harshest attacks on Romney, a sign of the pressure he is feeling.
One of the evening’s most fiery exchanges came when moderator Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich whether he is satisfied that Romney has been transparent enough in releasing his tax returns this week.
Gingrich, who has made it a practice to reprimand debate moderators, called it a “nonsense question.” Blitzer reminded the former speaker that he had said this week of Romney, “He lives in a world of Swiss bank and Cayman Island bank accounts.”
Gingrich responded: “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.”
Rather than letting the moment pass, Romney said he was offended that Gingrich wouldn’t stand behind his words.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they weren’t willing to defend here?” he said. He then rebuked Gingrich for suggesting that there was anything untoward about his finances.
“Mr. Speaker, you’ve indicated that somehow I don’t earn that money,” Romney said. “I have earned the money that I have. I didn’t inherit it. I take risks. I make investments. Those investments lead to jobs being created in America. I’m proud of being successful. . . .
What you’ve accomplished in your life shouldn’t be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.”