JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney launched his most aggressive debate performance to date Thursday, landing blows against rival Newt Gingrich on immigration and Freddie Mac while ridiculing Gingrich's proposal to colonize the moon.
Most of the attention in the candidates' 19th debate focused on the front-runners Romney and Gingrich. But just days before the Florida primary, former Sen. Rick Santorum tore into Romney over health care reforms Romney instituted as governor of Massachusetts in Santorum's attempt to reassert himself as the conservative alternative to Romney.
Romney was unable to escape the blows landed on him by Santorum, who zeroed in on the parallels between the Massachusetts health care law, which requires residents to buy health insurance, and the national health reform bill written by President Obama that is modeled after Romney's plan and which all four candidates have pledged to repeal if elected.
"Folks, we can't give this issue away in this election," Santorum said "It is about fundamental freedom. Whether the United States government or even a state government" can mandate health care.
Romney was clearly flustered and made a particularly bad blunder by telling Santorum the health care issue was not worth getting angry about.
Santorum had a particularly good debate performance but he is trailing far behind Gingrich and Romney, who are running nearly tied in the polls. Rep. Ron Paul participated in the debate but is not competing in Florida.
Before Santorum ripped into him, Romney was dominating the CNN debate, swatting away attacks by Gingrich about Romney's recently disclosed tax returns, which revealed his considerable wealth and a closed Swiss bank account. Romney effectively turned the spotlight on Gingrich's $1.6 million contract with Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored enterprise that contributed to the housing bubble and its eventual collapse.
"Speaker Gingrich was hired by Freddie Mac to promote them," Romney said. "I think that was an enormous mistake. I think, instead, we should have had a whistleblower and not horn-tooter."
Gingrich has been under heavy attack from Romney in radio and television ads and from former GOP colleagues who now back Romney. When the former speaker swung back at Romney, though, he was unable to win over the studio audience as he did in South Carolina, where his debate performances propelled him to victory.
Things went downhill for Gingrich when he tried to accuse Romney of making money from investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Romney pointed out his money is managed in a blind trust and made the case that he earned money by working hard and helping to create jobs.
"Let's put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money, and let's get Republicans to say, you know what? What you've accomplished in your life shouldn't be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America," Romney said, adding that Gingrich also had investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Romney and Gingrich also scuffled over immigration. Gingrich was asked to defend his accusation that Romney's plan for illegal immigrants to "self-deport" was a fantasy. Gingrich said he believes Romney is the most "anti-immigrant" of the candidates because he did not want to allow illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States a long time and had grandchildren here to remain here legally.
"You know, our problem is not 11 million grandmothers," Romney said. "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have. It's school kids in schools that districts are having a hard time paying for. It's people getting free health care because we are required under the law to provide that health care."