GOP candidates have honed their message to Hispanic voters in Florida ahead of the key Republican primary there.
At a Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville on Thursday night, candidates canvassed topics as broad as taxes and wealth, lobbying and colonizing the moon.
However illegal immigration dominated the early part of the debate, according to The Hill.
A question directed at all four candidates, on their position on illegal immigration, quickly devolved into angry sparring between frontrunners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.
Gingrich, the former House speaker, targeted Romney's proposal that America's 11 million illegal immigrants should "self-deport."
Grandparents with long-standing connections to the country wouldn’t leave voluntarily even if employment opportunities were denied, Gingrich contended.
Romney's retort, to raucous applause, the Hill reported, was that: "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers. Our problem is 11 million people with jobs that Americans, legal immigrants would like to have."
Romney also labeled as "repulsive" Gingrich's assertion that he was anti-immigrant, saying, "That’s inexcusable. Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico."
The former Massachusetts governor's father was a missionary in Mexico. Romney also has a son who lived in Chile as a Mormon missionary and is fluent in Spanish. His son, the Christian Science Monitor reported, has addressed crowds by his side on the campaign trail in Florida.
Romney was called out, meantime, over one of his ads criticizing Gingrich for calling Spanish "the language of the ghetto."
Ron Paul, for his part, suggested shifting resources from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Mexican border to alleviate what he agreed was a problem.
Rick Santorum echoed Romney's view, lamenting that those who entered the country illegally were flouting US law by remaining in the country.
ABC News noted that given Hispanics' low numbers in early-voting states like Iowa and South Carolina, "the candidates’ rhetoric toward Latinos has been nothing short of inflammatory" for much of the GOP race so far.
However, with Romney and Gingrich, locked in a virtual dead heat and the Florida primary only five days away, had evidently decided it was "time to court the Latino vote."
According to data from the Florida Division of Elections compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center, Latinos make up 13.1 percent of the state’s 11.2 million registered voters.
Nearly 1.5 million Latinos are registered to vote here, and as recently as 2006 more than half of them — now around 450,000 — are registered Republican, constituting 11 percent of all GOP registered voters.
Both GOP candidates said they’d involve a number of top Hispanic GOP office holders in their Cabinet, mentioning Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio, according to the Associated Press "a tea party favorite and widely viewed as a potential vice presidential nominee."
The candidates also mentioned New Mexico Gov. Barbara Martinez and Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval among other prominent Hispanic leaders.
ABC cited a poll by Latino Decisions for the network and Univision showing Romney with "a whopping" 26-point lead over Gingrich among Latino Republicans in Florida, 49 percent to 23 percent.
President Barack Obama, meanwhile, said all the remaining GOP candidates were wrong on both immigration and health care as it affects Hispanics.
“Whether it’s [Mitt] Romney or [Newt] Gingrich or [Rick] Santorum or whoever else they might decide to select, they represent a fundamentally different vision of America. And it’s not the bold, generous, forward-looking, optimistic America that I think built this country,” Obama said in an interview cited by the Washington Times.
Noting that Romney and Gingrich had said they would veto the Dream Act, he added: "They believe that we should not provide a pathway to citizenship for young people who were brought here when they were very young children, and are basically American kids, but right now are still in a shadow.
“They both believe that we should repeal a health care law that stands to provide millions of Latinos who work every single day the opportunity to make sure that they’ve got health insurance.”
Romney and Gingrich also clashed over more familiar topics during the debate — the 19th of the season for the Republicans — including Gingrich's work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac and Romney's personal wealth.
Less familiar territory Gingrich's proposal to establish a moon colony and send a spacecraft to Mars, and whether he could still balance the federal budget.
"I don’t think we should go to the moon," Paul said, according to the Washington Post. "I think we should send some politicians up there."
Romney was less kind: "I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, 'You’re fired.' "
Consensus among major international news media was that Romney won the debate.
The Atlantic ran its report under the headline, "Newt Gingrich loses a crucial GOP debate," while Britain's Daily Telegraph ran with "Mitt Romney asserts his authority over Newt Gingrich in Jacksonville debate."
According to the Guardian, the best performance of the night was that of Santorum, who "tried to rise above the pettiness to deliver his theocratic message with vigor."
The BBC quoted Santorum as saying the discussion was sidetracked with "petty personal politics" candidates and should focus on more substantive issues.
"Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress... and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy?" he asked the moderator.
Meanwhile, the Guardian wrote:
Ron Paul was by far the most entertaining. Challenging all the candidates to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas sun, and never more than 100 words from saying something arcane about the economy, he engaged the audience by the simple virtue of refusing to engage seriously with the discussion that was taking place on stage.