Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich commanded most of the attention during the debate in Jacksonville, although former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania drew praise from political analysts for his showing in the debate, sponsored by CNN and the Republican Party of Florida.
Romney and Gingrich tangled on immigration, taxes and spending, and electability, each accusing the other of using over-the-top rhetoric in their campaign ads.
As they debated the propriety of Romney's method of acquiring personal wealth and Gingrich's record as a consultant to Freddie Mac, Santorum suggested the debate should focus on other things.
"The bigger issue here is, these two gentlemen, who are out distracting from the most important issues -- we have been playing petty personal politics, can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies -- and that's not the worst thing in the world -- and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because worked hard and he's going out and working hard? And you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues," Santorum said.
Romney said in Florida Wednesday if he is elected president, former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro would "finally be taken off this planet."
Romney made the remark at a forum held by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, while Gingrich said he would go after Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"If I'm fortunate to become the next president of the United States, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet," Romney said.
"I doubt he'll take any time in the sky," he said. "He'll find a nether region to be more to his comfort."
Gingrich promised an audience at Florida International University Wednesday he would be tough with Chavez, a Castro ally, and vowed to create regime change in Cuba using moral, psychological and economic strategies.
"My commitment is very simple -- I will use every non-military tool that President Reagan, Prime Minister Thatcher and Pope John Paul II brought to bear on the Soviet Union," he said.
The largest concentration of Venezuelans in the United States lives in southern Florida, especially the Miami suburb of Doral and the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Weston.
The candidates are appealing to Hispanic voters ahead of Tuesday's Florida Republican primary as a Univision/ABC News poll released Wednesday showed Romney with a 15-point advantage over Gingrich among likely Hispanic GOP voters.
Forty-nine percent favor Romney, compared with 23 percent who support Gingrich, the Jan. 16-23 poll indicated. Santorum has 7 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas 6 percent. Twenty-one percent of likely Hispanic GOP voters are undecided.
The poll has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error.
Hispanic voters account for about 10 percent of likely primary voters.
When Romney lost Florida to Sen. John McCain in the 2008 GOP presidential primary, he won just 14 percent of the Latino vote, compared with McCain's 54 percent.
McCain was expected to campaign for Romney in Florida beginning Thursday.
A CNN/Time/ORC International poll Wednesday indicated 36 percent of likely GOP primary voters back Romney, with 34 percent supporting Gingrich. Santorum has 11 percent and Paul 9 percent.
The poll has a 5 percentage point margin of error.
Gingrich continued his offensive against Romney Wednesday by mocking Romney's comment in Monday's debate that illegal immigrants would "self-deport" when they can't find jobs.
Gingrich called Romney's position an "Obama-level fantasy."
"I think you have to live in worlds of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and an automatic $20 million-a-year income with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality," he told a Univision forum of GOP presidential hopefuls that Romney appeared at later in the day. Santorum also appeared in the forum.
Romney later upbraided Gingrich for running radio ads labeling Romney "anti-immigrant" -- ads Gingrich dropped after being rebuked by GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
"It's very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet," Romney said. "It's just inappropriate. ... I am not anti-immigrant. I'm pro-immigrant. I like immigration."
Romney was asked at the Univision forum how much money he had -- and said he had between $150 million and $200 million.
"What my wife and I have we earned, and we earned it by helping start businesses, by being successful in the businesses that I ran," he said.
The issue of how he acquired his wealth has dogged Romney, as he initially refused -- and then relented and agreed to -- releasing his tax records.
Santorum said Wednesday he would follow Romney's lead and release his tax returns.
He said he would head home over the weekend to gather and prepare his tax documents for release.
Asked what he expected his tax returns to reveal, Santorum raised his hand to his mouth and let out a fake yawn. He did not respond to questions about how many years he planned to release, nor did he offer a release date.
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