Mitt Romney came out swinging in a highly-charged debate tonight that saw the former Massachusetts governor and Newt Gingrich clash with each other on a number of issues, from immigration to taxes to their connections to Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae.
Romney was quick to pounce on Gingrich and dominated much of the debate, which focused heavily on issues of concern to Florida's Hispanic voters -- namely, immigration and relations with Cuba.
An angry Romney demanded an apology from Gingrich for labeling him "anti-immigrant," calling the former House speaker's rhetoric "repulsive" and "inexcusable."
"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive," Romney said at the debate sponsored by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network. "Don't use a term like that."
When asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer whether Romney is the most anti-immigrant candidate, Gingrich responded, "I think out of the four of us, yes," referring to the candidates on stage.
Romney called Gingrich's charge, "the type of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long."
He mentioned his father, who was born in Mexico and his wife's father, who was born in Wales.
"I think you should apologize for it," Romney said. "And I think you should recognize that having differences in opinion does not justify labeling people with highly-charged epithets."
Gingrich dubbed his opponent anti-immigrant in a Spanish-language ad that he eventually pulled after harsh criticism from the state's Republican, Cuban-American U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, who said the ad was "unbecoming of a presidential candidate."
The former House speaker said he was equally offended by an ad from Romney that he said mischaracterized his views on Spanish language.
"Reagan would have never offended Hispanics as Gingrich did when he said Spanish is the language of the ghetto," the ad said.
What Gingrich said in 2007 was that bilingual education should be replaced by "immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."
Romney first said tonight that he was not aware of the ad, and earned boos when he was told by Blitzer that the ad ended with his approval message.
Gingrich and Romney also went at each other on their connections with federally-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Gingrich, repeating his line of attack, pointed to Romney's investments in mutual bonds that own assets in those two firms. Romney responded by pointing out that Gingrich owns similar investments.
"Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?" Romney asked.
The former House speaker charged that comparing his investments with Romney's "is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant," a jab at Romney's wealth.
Gingrich tried to turn the tables a number of times against Romney and even against Blitzer over personal questions he suggested were too trivial for the debate forum.
But that attempt seemed to backfire as Romney confronted Gingrich on campaign trail attacks Blitzer had cited in his questioning.
"Wouldn't it be nice if people didn't make accusations somewhere else that they wouldn't repeat here?" the former governor asked, referring to Gingrich's indirect jabs on his wealth and questions about his tax returns.
Gingrich, in response, cited Romney's consistent calls for Gingrich to produce his contracts with Freddie Mac.
"It would be nice if you had the same standard for other people," he said. "It's a two-way truce."
Gingrich and Romney are neck-and-neck in polls, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum competing for third place.
Santorum tonight attacked both the leading candidates but hit Romney particularly hard on the Massachusetts health care program.
"Your mandate is no different than Barack Obama's mandate. It is the same mandate," he said.
Paul, who cracked jokes throughout the night, derided all the candidates equally for their health care proposals.
"I think they are all wrong," he said, laughing. "They have way too much confidence in government sorting this out."
Florida is a crucial test for the Republican candidates, especially for Romney, who has poured millions into the state contest. Gingrich has strong support among the state's Tea Party groups, but Romney leads by a wide margin among Hispanics.
A new CNN/Time Magazine/Opinion Research Corporation poll out late Wednesday found Romney and Gingrich in a statistical dead heat in Florida.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that in a hypothetical general election matchup, Romney would be the stronger candidate to run against Obama in Florida. Romney and Obama were tied at 45 percent, while the president led Gingrich 50 percent to 39 percent among registered voters.