The Republican presidential candidates are gathered in Jacksonville, Fla., tonight for their last debate before the Florida primary on Tuesday. The four remaining candidates -- Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum -- will be looking to make their final impressions on Republican voters in a state that could be pivotal in the general election in November.
A victory for Gingrich on Tuesday would confirm his front-runner status and deal a devastating blow to Romney, who is looking to revive his campaign after his embarrassing loss in South Carolina. A victory for Romney, on the other hand, would restore his own front-runner status and potentially knock Gingrich out of contention, as the states that vote immediately after Florida are seen as friendly to Romney.
Paul has not been campaigning in Florida, because its primary is open to registered Republicans only and because its delegates will be winner-take-all. But tonight's debate will be another opportunity for him to build support among voters dissatisfied with the establishment choices.
Santorum is campaigning in Florida, but he is polling far behind Gingrich and Romney and has almost no chance of getting Florida's delegates. But if he plans to push forward even after a loss in Florida, he will want to make the best impression possible tonight.
The International Business Times will be live-blogging the debate on this page when it begins at 8 p.m. EST.
9:59 p.m.: The debate is over. Five days from now, the results will be coming in from Florida. Check back later tonight and tomorrow morning for analysis of the debate and of the candidates' prospects on Tuesday.
9:58 p.m.: Santorum agrees with Gingrich and Romney that this is a big election about America's fundamental principles. He says he's just better than Gingrich and Romney at conveying that message. He says Gingrich and Romney supported the bailouts; they also bought into the global warming hoax. His message is essentially that he is the real conservative in the race, because he believes in a bottom-up economy and society rather than top-down.
9:56 p.m.: Gingrich says he has participated in two of the greatest Republican sweeps in modern times: 1980 and 1994. We need an election based on big choices, he says, between jobs and food stamps, Americanism or (20th century community activist) Saul Alinsky, and he presents those big choices.
9:54 p.m.: Romney says voters understand that this is a uniquely important election, and that it will decide whether America will stay America or keep moving toward Europe. He says he will beat Obama with his business experience and understanding.
9:52 p.m.: And we're back with the last question. Blitzer asks the candidates to tell voters why they are the one person on this stage that is most likely to beat Barack Obama. Paul says national polls show him doing very well, mainly because the freedom message in the Constitution is very appealing to everybody in all political beliefs, because it includes free markets ... but it also protects civil liberties. This brings in voters from across the political spectrum, he says.
9:49 p.m.: Last commercial break.
9:48 p.m.: Santorum says the Constitution is the how of America, the operator's manual, but the why of America is found in the Declaration of Independence, which guarantees God-given rights, not government-given rights. Faith doesn't have nothing to do with it, he says; faith has everything to do with it. If our president believes that rights come to us from the state, then everything government gives you, it can take away. The role of the government is to protect rights that cannot be taken away. The government must understand where our rights come from.
9:46 p.m.: Gingrich says religion would affect him in three ways. One, the president is faced with decisions so enormous that they should go to God, because these decisions are beyond the capacity of mortals to address. Two, if you really believe in God, it's not just an hour on Sundays, it should infuse your life. Third, there has been an increasing war against religion, and especially against Christianity in this country -- applause -- largely by a secular elite in the news media and judicial arenas, and he would stand up to those forces to guarantee religious freedom, not religious oppression by the state.
9:45 p.m.: An audience member asks how the candidates' religious beliefs would affect the decisions they made in the Oval Office. Paul says his religious beliefs affect his character but would not affect his political decisions. The only thing that would affect him as president is my oath of office and the promises I've made to the people, he says. Romney says our nation is based on Judeo-Christian ethics, and often our laws don't explicitly address the issues we face, and Judeo-Christian values should absolutely influence our principles.
9:43 p.m.: Where do the candidates stand on allowing Puerto Rico to become a state, and why did they not mention the governor of Puerto Rico as a potential vice presidential candidate, one woman asks? Santorum says he considers the Puerto Rican governor, Luis Fortuno, a good friend. I believe in self-determination, he says. He supports the right of the Puerto Rican people to decide whether they will be a state, a commonwealth, or anything else. He adds that he supports policies to improve the Puerto Rican economy through pro-growth, supply-side economics.
9:41 p.m.: Gingrich agrees that the U.S. has to make very clear that it stands with Israel, and he says he would move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
9:39 p.m.: A Palestinian-American audience member asks what the candidates would do to promote peace between Israel and Palestine. Romney responds that the only reason there isn't peace right now is that Palestine isn't willing to accept a two-state solution; it wants to eliminate the state of Israel. He also says it's unacceptable to set the 1967 boundaries as the foundation for negotiations.
9:35 p.m.: Romney accuses Obama of ignoring Latin America, and says we need to expand trade throughout Latin America, especially with Colombia and Panama. However, he says, Tyrants look for weakness to take advantage, and when Fidel Castro finally leaves this planet, he will pursue every non-military means possible to help the Cubans change their government.
9:34 p.m.: Paul says he supports improving relations with Cuba and other Latin American countries, and calls sanctions counterproductive -- they actually hurt the people fighting those governments, he said. I worry about overreaction and overconcern, he says, and adds that he would listen to any Latin American leader if they called.
9:32 p.m.: Santorum says he supports the Cuban people's right to freedom, and the United States needs to stand firmly against the despots in the Cuban government and their puppet Chavez in Venezuela, and Noriega, and Morales. He says it would be unacceptable for a president to reward the leftist governments in Latin America by opening up and liberalizing trade and communications.
9:30 p.m.: Despite Romney's diplomatic answer, Gingrich begins his own answer with a criticism of the Romney attack machine. He then touts his endorsement from Michael Reagan. I am vastly closer to Reagan than Romney, he says, just as Romney said. He points out that, when running against Edward Kennedy for Senate in 1994, Romney said he did not want to return to the Reagan era. Gingrich adds, Those of us who were in the trenches fighting in the 1980s, it would be nice to be recognized for what we did.
9:28 p.m.: Does Romney think he can claim the Ronald Reagan mantle better than Gingrich can, Blitzer asks? Romney says no, during the Reagan era, he was looking at politics from afar. He only got into politics after spending years in business. He talks about his Olympic Games experience, and then his time as governor, during which he acknowledges he became more conservative.
9:27 p.m.: Santorum adds that because of his wife's book about the child they lost, hundreds of parents have decided not to have abortions when their children were diagnosed prenatally with disabilities.
9:26 p.m.: Gingrich says all four candidates' wives would be great first ladies. Of Callista, he mentions her passion for music. She's also very patriotic about American exceptionalism, he says. I would be thrilled to be able to hang out with her in the White House. Santorum says his wife is not here tonight because she's doing what she does best, taking care of their seven children, but she is my hero. He talks about her experience in both medicine and law, and when she got married she gave that up to be a mother and a wife. We've been through a lot together, losing a child, having a child with a disability. ... The amount of love for these special kids is just palpable in her.
9:23 p.m.: Why would each candidate's wife make a great first lady? Paul: She's been my wife for 54 years. ... She's also the author of a very famous cookbook, 'The Ron Paul Cookbook.' Romney: In some respects she is a real champion and a fighter. He mentions his wife's multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, and how she has survived both and shows compassion and care. She also encourages young women to get married before having kids.
9:18 p.m.: Commercial break.
9:17 p.m.: The next question is about which Hispanic leaders the candidates would consider to serve in their administrations. Santorum suggests Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. Gingrich suggests Gov. Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Romney mentions Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, as well as Martinez and Rubio, a terrific Hispanic-American, and Carlos Gutierrez, former secretary of commerce. Paul says he doesn't have specific names in mind; his litmus test would be whether his appointees understood the importance of sound monetary policy and a non-interventionist foreign policy.
9:15 p.m.: Paul says Santorum and Romney are both wrong; they're just arguing about which form of government is best. He repeats an argument he has made before, that when he started practicing medicine, there was no Medicare or Medicaid, and you didn't have anyone on the streets lacking health care, he claims.
9:14 p.m.: Your mandate is no different from Barack Obama's mandate. It is the same mandate, Santorum says.
9:13 p.m.: Santorum accuses Romney of supporting a top-down insurance system in Massachusetts. Romney responds that 92 percent of citizens in the state had insurance before his law went into place, and nothing changed for them. The 8 percent that didn't either had to buy insurance on the private market or pay for the cost of the state providing free care for them in emergency rooms. Santorum responds: Did Romneycare mandate insurance or not? He says Romneycare requires people to buy insurance as a condition of breathing in Massachusetts, or pay a fine, which is much what Obamacare did.
9:09 p.m.: Romney says there are a lot of problems with the health care system in Massachusetts, but there's a lot of good in it, too, and the people of Massachusetts support it 3-1. He then repeats his argument that there's a big difference between a federal mandate and a state system. Each state should be allowed to craft a system that works for its citizens, just as Massachusetts did.
9:08 p.m.: Gingrich denies that he supported the individual mandate and says Santorum is unjustly lumping him and Romney together.
9:06 p.m.: Santorum adds that we should extend untaxed health savings accounts to everyone. Then he says he agrees with most of the things Gingrich and Romney said, but the problem is, they didn't always say those things. He brings up Romneycare, for example, and outlines its similarities to Obamacare, and accuses Gingrich of supporting the individual mandate before he opposed it.
9:05 p.m.: Romney says we need to move away from the model where most insurance comes from employers. The tax deduction for insurers who buy insurance for their employees should be extended to individuals who buy their own insurance. He then echoes Gingrich and Paul, saying the most important thing is to strengthen the economy and add jobs, which Obama has failed to do.
9:04 p.m.: Gingrich responds that we need to strengthen the economy in order to allow the audience member to get a job and afford insurance, and put her back in a position where she's in charge of her life, she doesn't have to depend on Obama.
9:03 p.m.: An audience member says she is uninsured and asks what the candidates will do about health care. Paul says the woman's situation is a consequence of the government being too involved in the health care system since 1965 (when Medicare was established), which sent costs skyrocketing. The cost of health care would be more affordable without government intervention, he says.
9:00 p.m.: Paul jumps in: Gingrich is constantly talking about balancing the budget four years in a row, but Paul checked the records, and the national debt went up by $1 trillion in those years, so Gingrich can't really claim he balanced the budget meaningfully. Santorum then chimes in, in response to Gingrich's claim that he both balanced the budget and pursued big initiatives as speaker, that it was a very different world in the 1990s -- we didn't have this kind of debt then.
8:59 p.m.: Gingrich responds that part of campaigning is learning about the needs of individual states. Secondly, he says, it is possible to do the right things in the right order. ... You don't just have to be cheap everywhere.
8:58 p.m.: The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there -- it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea, Romney says. He adds that if one of his business executives came to him proposing a multi-billion-dollar project for a moon colony, he'd fire them, and accuses Gingrich of going state to state and promising what people want to hear no matter how much it costs. Applause.
8:57 p.m.: Gingrich quotes JFK: We will go to the moon in this decade. When he said that, the technology didn't exist to do that, and it was a grandiose idea, but JFK's statement inspired many people to go into science. I don't want to be the country that, having gotten to the moon first, said, it doesn't really matter, let the Chinese get there, he says.
8:55 p.m.: I don't think we should go to the moon, Paul says. I think maybe we should send some politicians up there. Laughter. He continues that he would only vote for space funding for national defense purposes, not just for the fun of it. We don't need a bigger and newer program, he says. Something else deserves a lot more priority than going to the moon.
8:54 p.m.: Santorum says America is a frontier nation, and the space program is no exception. He says we need to get children more interested in math and science, for starters. But with a $1.2 trillion deficit, we simply can't promise new programs and big ideas -- it's not responsible; we have to talk about cutting programs to save money. In my administration, we're going to spend less money every year ... and you can't do that by grand schemes, whether it's the space program or the speaker's Social Security program. Applause.
8:52 p.m.: The next question is similar: How does Gingrich expect to build a moon base while still lowering taxes? He poses a question in response: does anyone really think NASA in its current form spends its money efficiently? He doesn't really address the question.
8:51 p.m.: The next question is about NASA, especially because a lot of Floridians have lost jobs because of the decline of the space program. Blitzer asks Romney if he agrees with Gingrich's proposal to build a permanent moon base, and Romney responds, That's an enormous expense. He'd rather spend that money at home. But he does want to create a plan that will keep our space program thriving and growing. ... I'm not looking for a colony on the moon. I'd rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S.
8:49 p.m.: Blitzer asks Paul if he's willing to release his medical records to show that, despite his age, he's healthy enough to handle the challenges of the president's job. Paul says he's perfectly willing to do that because they're only one page, if that, and adds that he'll challenge the three other candidates to a 25-mile bike ride in the Texas heat anytime. There are laws against age discrimination, so if you bring this up too much, you'd better be careful, he tells Blitzer.
8:48 p.m.: Paul says he wants to get rid of the 16th Amendment and the income tax altogether, and the only way to make that possible is to eliminate the welfare and the warfare state. He says it doesn't matter if the welfare system helps the rich or the poor -- it's not sustainable. The solution isn't to tax the wealthy, he says. If you make an honest product and the customers buy that product, you deserve to keep that money.
8:46 p.m.: The next question is to Santorum. The majority of Americans believe the wealthy should pay more taxes, so why are they wrong, in his opinion? Because we need to have as much money funneling through this economy as possible, Santorum says. He adds, though, that he doesn't agree with Gingrich on reducing the capital gains tax to zero, which is the policy that would allow Romney to pay nothing.
8:44 p.m.: Under Gingrich's proposed tax plan, Romney would pay no taxes, Blitzer says. How does he justify that? I believe we need to have someone who fights for hard-working taxpayers, Gingrich says. His priority is lowering everyone's taxes to a maximum of 15 percent, not raising his [Romney's] taxes to Obama levels.
8:43 p.m.: Romney responds to the original Gingrich allegation, saying, What you've accomplished in your life shouldn't be seen as a detriment. It should be seen as an asset to help America.
8:42 p.m.: And we're back. Is Gingrich satisfied with Romney's level of transparency on his finances? This is a nonsense question, Gingrich says, echoing Santorum. How about if the four of us actually talk about issues that relate to governing America? Blitzer responds that it was Gingrich, not he, who made the allegation that Romney lives in a world of Swiss bank accounts. Gingrich complains that he said that in an interview, but a debate is different -- we should be focusing on the issues. Blitzer responds that Gingrich made a serious allegation and needs to explain it.
8:38 p.m.: Commercial break -- we'll be back in a minute.
8:37 p.m.: Santorum says we need to gradually reduce the amount of money Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac can lend out, toward the eventual end of eliminating the companies. Then he says, to huge applause, that we need to stop talking about Gingrich's consulting activities and Romney's business activities and start talking about the real issues.
8:35 p.m.: Blitzer asks Paul whether Gingrich and Romney should return the money they have made from investments in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Paul says he's not interested in that; he's interested in the question of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac themselves, and he points out that, long before the housing crisis, he was advocating policies in Congress that would have prevented it.
8:34 p.m.: Gingrich says the only time he ever spoke to Congress about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac was in 2008, when he told Congress that it shouldn't give more money to the companies.
8:33 p.m.: Romney responds that all his investments are made through a blind trust; he doesn't pick them. He adds that he doesn't invest directly in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; he invests in a mutual fund which in turn invests in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and so does Gingrich, he says. Applause.
8:31 p.m.: Gingrich asks the audience how many people in Florida have had a house foreclosed, as Florida has been one of the states hardest hit by the housing crisis. It's unclear from the CNN coverage how many people raised their hands, but Gingrich continues that he never consulted for Freddie Mac, but Romney has invested in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, so how many homes have been foreclosed on in Florida as a result of his investments?
8:30 p.m.: Do we need more regulation in the housing industry? What should be done with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? Romney says it was a mistake not to dismantle Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He says we're creating another housing bubble, and the real solution is to get people back to work so they can afford homes, not to give them loans they can't afford.
8:29 p.m.: Blitzer says CNN checked, and the ad Gingrich referred to, that accused him of calling Spanish the language of the ghetto, is indeed a Romney ad, running in Florida, and at the end it says, I'm Mitt Romney and I approve this ad. Boos from the audience.
8:27 p.m.: Santorum responds to applause, I don't know what answer Congressman Paul was listening to, but he certainly wasn't listening to my answer. He says he never talked about using force in Latin America; he talked about countries in Latin America that are leaning toward socialism because the United States has ignored them.
8:26 p.m.: Santorum concludes that he will visit Latin America regularly as president. Paul responds that in American history, traditionally, standing up for nations like this usually means we impose ourselves. He says we shouldn't take a stance toward Latin America that we will do it our way, especially when it costs us troops and money. It's better to use our force to get along with people.
8:25 p.m.: Santorum calls Obama's policy toward Honduras and other Latin American countries abysmal. He accuses Obama of failing to stand behind the pro-democracy factions in Honduras, and standing beside people like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez instead. This is a consistent policy of standing with the leftists, standing with the Marxists, he says.
8:24 p.m.: Next question: how would the candidates more deeply engage in Latin America and support the governments that support democracy and free markets there? Paul answers, Free trade is an answer, and I think we'd be a lot better off trading with Cuba. The more you can do to promote free trade, the better off we'll be. But we don't have a military or financial obligation to dictate to them what government they should have, he adds. People resent that.
8:22 p.m.: Gingrich and Romney are now arguing about a pro-Romney ad that accused Gingrich of calling Spanish the language of the ghetto. Romney says he's not aware of that ad and doesn't think it's his, but he agrees with Gingrich that all immigrants should learn English.
8:20 p.m.: Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers, Romney says to applause. It's 11 million people who are taking jobs away from Americans and taking government benefits.
8:19 p.m.: Having differences of opinions on issues does not justify labeling people with highly charged epithets, Romney tells Gingrich, to much applause. Gingrich challenges Romney to tell him what language he should use to describe a candidate who would deport grandmothers and grandfathers. Romney responds that he's not going to go around singling out grandmothers and grandfathers; he just wants to support legal immigration over illegal immigration. He says he wants to speak for the grandmothers and grandfathers on the other side of the border who are trying to get here legally, not for those who came here illegally.
8:17 p.m.: Gingrich fiercely defends his position not to deport grandmothers and grandfathers, because he sees deporting them as completely unrealistic. I am prepared to be very tough and very bold, but I am also prepared to be realistic, he says. Romney then responds to Gingrich's ad saying that Romney is anti-immigration, calling it inexcusable.
8:16 p.m.: Paul says you can't address illegal immigration without addressing the economy. He says we do need more resources to secure the border, but where are those resources going to come from? He suggests taking our resources from the Afghan-Pakistani border and redelegating them to our own border.
8:14 p.m.: Romney says in response to Gingrich that we have a greater responsibility to the people who are trying to immigrate here legally and can't, than to the people who are here illegally, no matter how long they've been here.
8:13 p.m.: Gingrich says the deportation process for illegal immigrants should be much quicker than it is now. He adds that self-deportation could work for people who haven't been here a long time and don't have roots here, but it's a different story for people who are married and have families here -- they're unlikely to self-deport. So he suggests a panel to allow those immigrants to get legality but not citizenship. I don't think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport, he says.
8:11 p.m.: Santorum says legal immigrants bring a vitality and love of this country, but illegal immigrants will leave if they can't get a job here.
8:10 p.m.: The first question is from an audience member, about how to combat illegal immigration while facilitating legal immigration. Santorum agrees with Romney that we need to enforce the laws in this country, and that that could potentially lead to what Romney termed self-deportation. The first act when people come to this country should not be to break the law, he says. And if you've stayed in the country for years, you've been working illegally and probably stolen someone's Social Security number, so you've broken the law multiple times.
8:07 p.m.: Candidate introductions. Rick Santorum is thrilled to be here with his 93-year-old mother, who lives in northern Florida, in the audience. Newt Gingrich is pleased to be in Jacksonville, which will be the site of the next nuclear aircraft battle group, he says. Mitt Romney is here with his wife and his oldest son, Tagg Romney. And Ron Paul is the champion of a sound monetary system and a foreign policy based on strength, which rejects nation-building and America as the policeman of the world.
8:02 p.m.: The debate is about to start. Welcoming the candidates onstage now.