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Romney slams Gingrich over criticism of immigration views

By David Lightman and Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers –

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mitt Romney blasted as “repulsive” Newt Gingrich’s criticism of his views on immigration, as the two Republican presidential candidates engaged in a fierce war of words Thursday night in the final debate before Florida’s presidential primary on Tuesday.

Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, had labeled Romney the most anti-immigrant candidate.

“That’s simply inexcusable. That’s inexcusable,” a clearly angry Romney protested. He cited a Gingrich ad, pulled Wednesday, that charged Romney with holding anti-immigrant views.

“Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don’t use a term like that.”

He kept scolding Gingrich, calling his comments “simply the kind of over the top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long,” Romney said.

Regarding the ad, he said, “I think you should apologize for it, and I think that you should recognize that having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets.”

Tuesday’s primary is the first big-state test of 2012. Also competing are Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Romney drew loud cheers from the crowd at North Florida University as he tore into Gingrich.

Gingrich would not back down, challenging Romney’s call for “self-deportation” of illegal immigrants. Such a policy, Gingrich said, would mean deporting grandparents who have been here for years and sunk deep roots into communities.

“You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family — just tell me the language,” he urged.

Romney was firm.

“What I said was people who come here legally (should) get a work permit. People who do not come here legally do not get a work permit. … I’m not going to go find grandmothers and take them out of their homes and deport them,” Romney insisted. “I am pro-immigrant. … I want them to come legally.”

Gingrich would not relent.

“All I want to do is allow the grandmother to be here legally with some rights to have residency but not citizenship so he or she can finish their life with dignity within the letter of the law,” he said.

Romney looked stern and fired right back. “You know,” he said, “our problem is not with 11 million grandmothers.”

The two-hour debate was hosted by CNN, the Hispanic Leadership Network, a center-right group, and the Florida GOP. It also featured a clash over Freddie Mac, the embattled mortgage giant. Gingrich was a consultant to it and earned an estimated $1.6 million. Romney ads have labeled Gingrich a Washington insider in part for that.

Gingrich, though, said that Romney’s investments included shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Romney explained that his investments are in a blind trust and not made at his direction.

He later added that he made his own money and didn’t inherit it, and he called for a halt to attacks on “people who have been successful.”

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