MIAMI -- Republican Newt Gingrich said Friday that the reason he seemed less combative during Thursday’s televised debate was that he was shocked by what he described as rival Mitt Romney’s “total dishonesty” on immigration, his vote for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992 and whether he knew about an ad his campaign is running against Gingrich.

Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney place their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem at the start of a debate on Jan. 26 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Chip Somodevilla/GETTY IMAGES)

“I think it’s the most blatantly dishonest performance by a presidential candidate I’ve ever seen,” Gingrich said in a telephone interview. At several moments during the debate, Gingrich simply leaned away from his lectern and looked down at his feet because he was so stunned by some of Romney’s statements, he said. He didn’t engage Romney at the time, he said, because “I wanted to fact check. I wanted to make sure he was as totally dishonest as I thought he was.”

Gingrich’s remarks come at a moment when his fortunes in the Republican presidential race are falling. A new poll shows that Romney has pulled into the lead in Florida, which will hold a crucial primary on Tuesday. Gingrich has lost much of the momentum he brought to Florida after his landslide victory in South Carolina a week ago, and Romney’s strong performance in Thursday’s debate didn’t help.

Gingrich sought to retrieve that momentum in part with his aggressive stand on Romney’s debate performance, which he also described at length in an interview with Sean Hannity that will air on Fox News later Friday. In addition, his campaign began airing a new TV ad called “What kind of man?” featuring a quote from former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee saying “”If a man’s dishonest to get a job, he’ll be dishonest on the job.”

Thursday afternoon, Huckabee denounced the use of his words in the adds. He posted this statement on his PAC Web site:

“Any use of an out of context quote from the Republican Presidential primary 4 years ago in a political ad to advocate for the election or defeat of another candidate is not authorized, approved, or known in advance by me. I have made it clear that I have not and do not anticipate making an endorsement in the GOP primary, but will support the nominee. My hope is to defeat Barack Obama and win majorities in both the House and Senate, not to attack any of the Presidential candidates who might be our nominee.”

Huckabee made a similar statement before the South Carolina primary when a Romney Web ad featured a clip of him defending the former Massachusetts governor:

Gingrich also intensified his pitch to the Hispanic community Friday -- a significant voting bloc in Florida -- by promising to let Puerto Rico vote on the question of statehood. At a convention of the National Hispanic Leadership Network, he also held a press conference with about a dozen Hispanic leaders including four, his campaign said, who had previously supported Romney. In an open letter to Romney, the group wrote: “Without an open dialogue with us, you are unable to understand issues important to the Latino community.”

The Romney campaign said none of the four supported the former Massachusetts governor this year. Additionally, none of them is from Florida. They are Vinicio Madrigal, a former chairman of the Louisiana Republican Hispanic Assembly; Joe Galvan and Massey Villarreal, both former chairmen of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly; and Jacob Monty, a former national Hispanic chairman for George W. Bush.

In the telephone interview, Gingrich said he was affronted by Romney’s statements during the debate on illegal immigration, which he said have swung widely from accusing Gingrich last year of being in favor of amnesty to agreeing Thursday night with Gingrich’s support for letting long-standing illegal immigrants obtain legal residency.

“I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them,” Romney said during the debate, which was hosted by CNN. “Those are your words, not my words. And to use that rhetoric suggests to people that somehow, if you’re not willing to keep people here who violated the law, that you’re anti- immigrant. Nothing could be further from the truth. “

He also said Romney was lying when he said he didn’t know about an ad his campaign is running accusing Gingrich of calling Spanish a “ghetto” language -- and when Romney said that the only reason he voted for Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary was because there was not a Republican contest that year.

“I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot,” Romney said. “And and in my state of Massachusetts, you could register as an independent and go vote in whichever primary happens to be very interesting. And any chance I got to vote against Bill Clinton or Ted Kennedy, I took.”

Romney’s campaign did not immediately respond to the accusation from Gingrich, but U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Romney supporter who is following Gingrich across Florida this week to rebut the former House speaker whenever he can, said: “I think Governor Romney has been very consistent overall on the issue of immigration. And he pointed out very aptly last night, I think, that the problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Mitt Romney has been very adamant that we need a fix on illegal immigration. It’s a good, solid, conservative position. I don’t see where the speaker thinks you can make inroads on a changing position. I just don’t see it.”

Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Alice Crites contributed to this story.