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Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich went at in what Nate Silver called “probably the most important GOP debate” of the campaign. The focus was mainly on the charges the two frontrunners have made against each other but when it came to foreign policy, the audience cheered Romney’s defense of Israel and Rick Santorum’s denunciation of the Obama administration towards “militant socialists” in Latin America.
The polls out of Florida have fluctuated wildly over the past week. In the days after Gingrich’s South Carolina victory, polls had him ahead by 8 or 9 points. Now, Romney has an average lead of 5 points, with several polls having him winning by 7 or 8 points. The two frontrunners swapped positions in just four days. The primary will be held on Tuesday, January 31.
On foreign policy, Mitt Romney had the most applause when he was asked about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He ridiculed the Obama administration for “disrespecting” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling for peace negotiations to be based on the 1967 borders and for criticizing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank while remaining silent as terrorist rockets fell on Israeli cities. He gave a passionate defense of Israel, saying that it is the Palestinians who are uninterested in a two-state solution. He argued that both Hamas and Fatah seek the destruction of Israel and that Palestinian children are taught with textbooks advocating the killing of Jews.
Newt Gingrich’s best moment on foreign policy was also about Israel. He defended his earlier statement that the Palestinians are an “invented” people, saying that before the 1970s, the Palestinians were just referred to as Arabs with Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian or Lebanese nationalities. He said the Palestinian leadership is more interested in conflict than in improving the lives of the Palestinian people and uses the process as “war by another form.” The crowd loved it when he said that on his first day in office, he’d sign an executive order moving the embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Rick Santorum was enthusiastically applauded when spoke about the intercontinental alliance between Islamic extremists like Iran and the “militant socialists” in Latin America, specifically in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia that are “spreading like a cancer.” The source of that cancer, Santorum said, is the Castro regime. He said that President Obama had “sided with the leftists, sided with the Marxists” in Latin America against U.S. allies like Colombia and those in Honduras who tried to stop Manuel Zelaya, a Chavez ally, from forming a dictatorship.
Ron Paul repeatedly advocated using diplomacy and free trade as the best way of promoting security. He said that his rivals’ policies towards Cuba and Latin America would backfire and cause anti-Americanism because of their “bully attitude.” His most well-received foreign policy-related line was when he said that most of the American people “don’t see a jihadist under the bed every night.”
There were several clashes between the candidates in this debate. The biggest were between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. Romney put him on the defensive over an ad that called him an “anti-immigrant,” which Florida Senator Marco Rubio defended him against. Romney said it was “repulsive,” that disagreements should be allowed to happen without “highly-charged epithets” and demanded an apology. Gingrich said that Romney would deport “grandmothers” who came to the U.S. illegally, which he denied.
The two frontrunners also battled over an ad accusing Gingrich of describing Spanish as the “language of the ghetto.” Wolf Blitzer asked Romney about it, who said he hadn’t seen the ad and was unsure if his campaign was behind it. He then asked Gingrich if that quote was accurate, to which he replied, “it’s taken totally out of context.” Romney responded, “Oh, well then he said it.” Later in the debate, Blitzer informed Romney that CNN confirmed that his campaign was running the ad, generating boos from the audience.
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