Mitt Romney left. Newt Gingrich right.

By Mark Z. Barabak and Maeve Reston
January 26, 2012, 7:11 p.m.

Reporting from Jacksonville, Fla. and Miami, Fla.— Picking up where their last debate left off, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich resumed battling Thursday night over personal integrity and the tenor of their respective campaigns, each accusing the other of unfair character attacks.

Romney, clearly itching for a fight, turned an early discussion on immigration policy into an assault on Gingrich over a radio spot he ran earlier this week on Florida’s Spanish-language airwaves. Gingrich pulled the ad, which described Romney as “anti-immigrant,” after it was criticized by Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising national star in Latino politics who is staying neutral in the primary.

“That ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate, Mr. Speaker,” Romney said. “I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales…. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”

Later, it was Gingrich who took umbrage, accusing Romney of making “personal attacks about personal activities about which you’re factually wrong.”

The debate, which also included former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, was the second this week in Florida, after Monday night’s session in Tampa. There a pugnacious Romney faced a comparatively subdued Gingrich. This time, Gingrich gave as good as he got.

When moderator Wolf Blitzer asked about the tax information Romney released earlier this week, the former House speaker initially refused to engage, characteristically chiding Blitzer for even asking the question. “I’m perfectly happy to say that on an interview with some TV show,” Gingrich said, “but this is a national debate where you have the chance to get the four of us to talk about a whole range of issues.”

With that, Romney jumped on Gingrich. “Wouldn’t it be nice if people didn’t make accusations somewhere else that they … weren’t willing to defend here?” Romney said.

Gingrich shot back, “OK. Given that standard, Mitt, I did say I thought it was a little unusual, and I don’t know of any American president who’s had a Swiss bank account,” he said. “I’d be glad for you to explain that sort of thing.”

Romney obliged, saying his investments were in a blind trust and all appropriate taxes were paid. “So look, let’s put behind this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money,”Romney said, “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.”

Inevitably, after 18 debates, the candidates fell back on some familiar issues and answers.

The housing crisis has hit Florida harder than just about any place in the nation and foreclosures remain rampant. Romney used a question about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal housing giants, to hammer Gingrich for working for Freddie Mac after leaving Congress. “That was an enormous mistake,” he said. “I think instead that we should have had a whistle-blower and not a horn-tooter.”

Gingrich responded that while Romney had been “cheerfully” attacking him for his lucrative consulting work for Freddie Mac, he owned shares of both entities and made $1 million by selling some. He added that Romney had also invested in Goldman Sachs, which is foreclosing on homes here.

“So maybe Gov. Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he’s made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments,” he said, to a mix of boos and cheers.

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