Florida, Florida, Florida.
The four Republican presidential hopefuls faced off tonight for their second debate this week in the Sunshine State. Tonight’s showdown, sponsored by CNN and the Hispanic Leadership Network, took place at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and kicked off at 8 p.m.
Keep tabs on the latest developments with our liveblog of tonight’s debate. Refresh this page often for updates, and also be sure to tune into The Fix as Chris Cillizza, Aaron Blake and Rachel Weiner liveblog the night’s proceedings.
If Mitt Romney was particularly on his game tonight, it’s likely due in no small part to the work of Brett O’Donnell.
O’Donnell, a GOP debate coach who’s considered among the best in the business, on Monday confirmed to The Washington Post that he has signed on to informally assist Romney in his debate prep. He was formerly assisting Rep. Michele Bachmann until the Minnesota Republican dropped out of the race earlier this month.
Romney has turned in lackluster performances in several recent debates and has allowed himself to get put on the defensive, particularly on the topic of his tax returns.
Not so tonight.
He was aggressive in taking on Gingrich and came well-armed on the issue of the former speaker’s work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac. He also delivered several memorable quips on immigration, Gingrich’s moon colony idea and health care – which certainly can’t hurt heading into Tuesday’s primary.
In his post-debate interview, Rick Santorum is asked about Mitt Romney’s statement that “it’s not worth getting angry about” the Massachusetts health care law.
“Don’t confuse passion with anger. ... I think there’s a lot of people out here that’re angry,” Santorum responds.
Santorum, who received a boost with his Iowa caucus win but has failed to translate that into momentum in the Florida polls, is still holding onto hope. He notes that he raised twice as much money over the last three weeks as in last nine months.
“As we’ve seen here tonight, there’s a lot of baggage, a lot of problems with the two ‘frontrunners,’” he says
Two hours after we began, the debate is over.
As the post-debate interviews kick off, Mitt Romney is up first.
“I thought it was terrific,” Romney says of the debate. “You saw the response here in this audience.
He’s asked by CNN’s Gloria Borger about his newly-aggressive tone, particularly when it comes to his sparring with Newt Gingrich.
“When I’m shot at, I’ll return fire,” Romney says. “I’m no shrinking violet.”
Mitt Romney hits President Obama hard on foreign policy, especially in regards to his own hemisphere.
“I think the president has largely ignored Latin American,” Romney says, in a none-too-subtle attempt to appeal to Florida’s large Cuban and Hispanic populations.
He adds that he would “dramatically” change that focus with new trade agreements and other efforts to extend a hand to countries in Central and South America.
Romney also criticizes Obama for “reaching out with accommodation to some of the world’s worst actors,” such as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
“The tyrants are looking for weakness,” he argues
— Vincent P. Bzdek
Newt Gingrich utters the phrase “all three of the wives” just now – but no, it’s not in response to the question you might think.
CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asks the GOP field about why each of their wives would make the best first lady.
Ron Paul, whose wife, Carol, is in the audience, notes that he has been married for more than 50 years.
Mitt Romney calls his wife, Ann – who is also in the audience -- a “real champion and a fighter,” noting that she has battled MS and breast cancer.
“As first lady, she will also be able to reach out to people who are struggling,” he says. Romney also adds that his wife has a passion to help people “understand the importance of getting married before they have babies.”
Gingrich is next, and his wife, Callista, is also in the crowd.
“I think all three of the wives represented here would be terrific first ladies,” he says. He goes on to note that Callista Gingrich has “a tremendous artistic focus” (among her talents, she sings and plays the French horn).
Rick Santorum calls his wife, Karen (who is not present) “my hero,” and speaks at length about his family. The Santorums have seven children, including their youngest, Bella, who suffers from a genetic disorder similar to Down syndrome; one of the Santorums’ children died hours after birth
The lion’s share of the applause seems to go to Mitt Romney, although Newt Gingrich has been getting a few rounds of cheers himself.
Ron Paul was by far the winner, however, when it came to audience participation outside the debate venue – Paul supporters were by far the most numerous (and most vocal) in the area where CNN was staging its liveshot before the debate
One thing the candidates agree on: they all like Marco Rubio.
Gingrich wins laughs when he mentions Rubio and notes that he has in mind “a slightly more dignified and central role than being in the Cabinet, but that’s not the conversation.”
Romney also cites Rubio, who he calls “a terrific Hispanic-American.”
Other names mentioned by the candidates include Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) (both Gingrich and Romney name her (she has endorsed Gingrich in the GOP race); New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R); and former senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.)
It’s a fight!
Mitt Romney is getting hammered for the Massachusetts health care law – a topic that, as we’ve noted before, has surprisingly been put on the back burner by both the candidates and the moderators during the GOP presidential debates.
The one doing the criticizing when it comes to Romney and health care tonight isn’t Newt Gingrich, though – it’s Rick Santorum.
“We consider it very different than Obamacare,” Romney says in defense of the 2006 Massachusetts law. “If I were president, Day One, I would take action to repeal Obamacare. ... I believe the people of each state should be able to craft programs that work best for their people.”
Santorum, however, doesn’t relent.
“Governor Romney said government-run, top-down medicine works pretty well in Massachusetts. ... Folks, we can’t give this issue away in this election. It is about fundamental freedom,” he says to applause.
Romney counters that “it’s not worth getting angry about” and continues with his defense of the differences between Massachusetts and the federal system.
“Let’s move on; let’s move on,” CNN’s Blitzer says.
“Wolf, what Mitt Romney said is factually incorrect,” Santorum says. “Your mandate is no different from Barack Obama’s. ... The same fines that you put in place in Massachusetts are fines that he puts in place at the federal level.”
Blitzer turns to Ron Paul. What does he think?
“I think they’re all wrong,” Paul responds
Newt Gingrich’s permanent moon colony idea?
It’s a big idea – but not necessarily a good one, says Mitt Romney.
“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,” Romney says to loud applause.
Of all the GOP candidates, Gingrich has tended most to have a deep knowledge of the local issues in each of the early primary states – and has deployed that knowledge on the campaign trail, from the port of Charleston in South Carolina to a hydroelectric power line from Canada to New Hampshire.
Romney on Thursday night seeks to turn that knowledge of local issues against Gingrich.
“We’ve got to say no to this kind of spending,” Romney says.
Gingrich retorts that it’s important for candidates to “be responsive to the needs of the states they campaigned in.”
Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich’s heated exchange over amnesty included a back and forth over whether grandmothers who came to the U.S. illegally should be deported — and snarky tweets in responsese
”Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers.” You’ve never had to drive in Florida, Mitt. #CNNdebate— daveweigel (@daveweigel) January 27, 2012
But how many of the 11 million are great grandmothers?— Josh Greenman (@joshgreenman) January 27, 2012
Romney’s got 11 million problems and a grandmother’s not one #cnndebate— roadkillrefugee (@rkref) January 27, 2012
If anyone’s thinking of self-deporting right now, it very well might be Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker is coming under withering fire from Mitt Romney for his Spanish-language attack ad claiming that the former Massachusetts governor is “the most anti-immigrant candidate.” Gingrich’s camp pulled the ad this week after Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) came to Romney’s defense.
Asked by Wolf Blitzer whether he stands by his statement that Romney is the “most anti-immigrant” GOP hopeful, Gingrich responds: “I think of the four of us, yeah.”
Romney fires back, calling the attack “repulsive” and a “highly-charged epithet.”
“That’s simply inexcusable,” he says. “That’s inexcusable. ... Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. ... Nothing could be further from the truth. I am pro-immigrant.”
(For more on Romney’s family history, click here.)
Of the Gingrich ad, Romney says: “I’m glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it. I’m glad you withdrew it. I think you should apologize for it.” The crowd applauds.
Gingrich gets further rocked when it comes to a 2007 speech in which he appeared to suggest that Spanish is “the language of living in a ghetto.” Romney’s camp has seized on the phrase in a Spanish-languaged attack ad against Gingrich in Florida.
Gingrich calls the Romney ad “offensive” and says that it has distorted his words. Romney, for his part, claims that he hasn’t seen the ad – even though it’s being aired by his own campaign.
Romney gets one last dig in at Gingrich on the issue of “self-deportation” when he takes aim at the former speaker’s contention that Romney would deport “grandmothers and grandfathers.”
“Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” Romney responds to cheers.
After brief introductions (Santorum notes that his mom is in the audience; Romney mentions his wife, children and grandkids), the first question is up.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a query about Romney’s “self-deportation” strategy when it comes to illegal immigration, a hot topic on the campaign trail this week.
But somewhat surprisingly, Blitzer turns to Santorum – who’s lagging in the polls -- to give the first answer.
“I support legal immigration, but we need to enforce the law,” Santorum says, adding that he largely agrees with Romney on the self-deportation issue.
Gingrich, too, says he backs the idea in part – a marked departure from his criticism of the concept on Wednesday as an “Obama-level fantasy.”
“I actually agree that self-deportation will occur if you’re single, if you’ve only been here for a relatively short period of time. ... I don’t think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport,” he says.
Romney defends the idea, noting that, “Well, you just heard the last two speakers say they support the concept of self-deportation.”
Our four GOP contenders have taken the stage, and after a rendition of the National Anthem, we’re off.
The candidates’ order onstage, from left to right: former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.); former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R); and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
The rules: One minute to answer, 30 seconds for follow-ups and rebuttals, according to moderator Wolf Blitzer.
The Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo reports:
The Hispanic Republican political world is buzzing with talk that Puerto Rico’s governor, Luis Fortuño, has been in talks with Mitt Romney for an endorsement – and sources tell The Miami Herald he could swing his support as early as tomorrow in Orlando.
Romney’s campaign wouldn’t comment.
Friday would be a perfect day for an endorsement for Romney, who’s attending the Hispanic Leadership Network forum tomorrow in Doral before he heads to Orlando – seat of Orange County, which has one of the largest Puerto Rican Republican communities in the state.
More than 21,000 Hispanic Republicans live in the county, about 11 percent of the registered GOP. Nearby Osceola County has more than 8,500 registered Hispanic Republicans – about 21 percent of the GOP. It’s unclear how many are of Puerto Rican descent.
Romney has scheduled a 6:15 p.m. press conference in Orlando. Said one Republican about a potential Fortuño endorsement: “This should happen.”
Caputo notes that Fortuño is scheduled to host a 2 p.m. event and press conference with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and others.
Sarah Palin isn’t endorsing Newt Gingrich ... yet.
“Look at Newt Gingrich, what’s going on with him, via the establishment’s attacks,” Palin told FBN’s John Stossel in an interview to be aired at 10 p.m. Eastern, according to excerpts provided by the network. “They’re trying to crucify this man and rewrite history, and rewrite what it is that he has stood for all these years.”
Palin was speaking in response to a question on whether she is “sympathetic” to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
“It’s not just Ron Paul,” Palin continued. “I believe it is also Newt Gingrich that the establishment, that the liberal media, certainly that the progressives and Democrats don’t like.”
Newt Gingrich is the buzziest candidate heading into the CNN Debate, according to the @MentionMachine. He leads the GOP field in both Twitter mentions and media mentions over the past week.
• Will we see feisty Newt Gingrich, who dominated the South Carolina debates, or the tamer debate version from the debate in Tampa earlier this week?
• Will the return of applause, which was banned in the NBC debate Monday, swing the momentum?
• How much will we hear about Newt Gingrich’s Freddie Mac contracts or Mitt Romney’s tax returns, which were released this week?
Read the other things Blake recommends watching for here.
Even if the debates are starting to feel like Groundhog Day, you can always count on protesters to liven things up. Journalism students at UNF found some of the best dressed ones for #2012Unfiltered.