The 2012 Florida Republican debate took a very personal turn Thursday night when Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul waxed poetic about their wives, making the case for why their better-halves would make the best first lady.

The question, posed by CNN's Wolf Blitzer in Jacksonville, introduced a juicy topic that has been little noted in Republican presidential debates but has been extensively covered by the media. One by one, the candidates touted the compassion of their spouses in a bragging competition that was both poignant and a plug for their best-selling books.

Mitt Romney  gushed over his wife, Ann, a mother of five and cookbook author, with adoring words. The former Massachusetts governor said she would make an excellent first lady because of her courage and conviction battling cancer and multiple sclerosis.

She's a real champion, the former Massachusetts governor said of Ann. She was diagnosed in 1997 with MS and with breast cancer in 2008 ... as first lady she'll be able to reach out to people who are struggling and suffering.

As the camera focused on Ann, who looked like she was holding back tears, Romney said she would also reach out to young people about the importance of getting married before they have babies.

Before Gingrich talked about his third wife, Callista, he said all the women would be terrific first ladies. These are fabulous people.

Gingrich divorced his first wife, Jackie, when she had cancer and his second, Marianne, after she was diagnosed with MS -- a fact left unmentioned but perhaps implied by Romney when he mentioned his own wife's struggles.

He said Callista, whose blonde bob and permanent grin have been at her husband's side the entire campaign, would bring artistic flair to the presidency.

She sings ... she really cares about the arts, said Gingrich, adding that his wife also has a best-selling children's book and has produced and hosted several movies. I'd be thrilled to hang out with her at the White House.

Santorum descibed his wife, Karen, as his hero. The former Pennsylvania senator asserted that her book about their dead son, Letters to Gabriel, saved hundreds of lives because it made people realize the child they were carrying should be loved and treated with dignity.

Santorum and his wife have both been public about a baby son they lost shortly after his birth in 1996, a story Santorum says is behind his strong anti-abortion stance. We've been through a lot together, losing a child, having a child with a disability, he said. His 3-year-old daughter, Bella, has Edwards syndrome.

Karen Santorum was also an intensive care nurse for five years, but when she got married she gave that up. She did something she felt she was called to do, to be a wife, to have children.

On his wife of 54 years, Ron Paul bragged that Carol is famous for penning The Ron Paul Family Cookbook, an unorthodox but adorable campaign strategy that incorporates the Republican candidate's family history along with recipes and photos.

She's a mother to five and a grandmother to 18, Paul said of Carol.