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Gingrich-Romney battle dominates the final debate before the Florida primary

With just days to go before the Sunshine state's key primary, Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich clashed in a contentious debate Thursday night. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

Updated at 10:30 pm ET

Republican rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney clashed early and often Thursday night over issues ranging from immigration and personal wealth to the various charges that have been fired in television ads and on the campaign trail as they conducted their final face-to-face confrontation Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary in Florida. 

After a strong win by Gingrich in South Carolina, the stakes for the two leading candidates are high five days before Florida Republicans get their chance to cast their ballots -- and the increasing tension in the campaign has reflected that.

Both candidates were quick to press their attacks against the other, but the debate lacked a single melodramatic moment that a few previous debates had when Gingrich galvanized the crowd by lashing out at the news media.

Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum were also on stage, but were mostly overshadowed by the increasingly fractious Romney-Gingrich struggle.

Gingrich was asked about the pledge that he made to voters on Florida’s Space Coast on Wednesday, “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon,” he said. Gingrich also was asked about his idea of granting U.S. statehood to an American lunar colony.

“I was meeting Rick’s desire for grandiose ideas,” a smiling Gingrich said, referring to Santorum.

But he warned against allowing China to dominate space exploration.

A lunar colony would be “an enormous expense,” Romney cautioned. “I’d rather be re-building housing here in the U.S.”

Romney ridiculed the lunar colony idea, saying that if he were a chief executive in the private sector he’d fire any entrepreneur who proposed spending billions of dollars on a colony on the moon.

And Romney accused Gingrich of pandering, by going from state to state and proposing ideas that would have local appeal – such as a new space program for Florida’s Space Coast. Politicians catering to local desires “got us into the (fiscal) trouble we’re in now,” Romney said.

When an audience member asked how religious faith would affect the candidates’ actions as president, Gingrich got a loud round of applause when he said “there has been an increasingly aggressive war against religion -- and in particular against Christianity in this country, largely by a secular elite” in academia and in the news media.

Santorum made a strong argument at the end of the debate that both Gingrich and Romney were fatally flawed by their support for the Wall Street bailout of 2008-2009 and, in Romney's case, by his signing a health insurance mandate into law as governor of Massachusetts. And, Santorum charged, "they both bought into the global warming hoax."

Read the NBC News/WSJ poll: Gingrich leads Romney but trails far behind Obama

The debate also touched on Gingrich’s criticism of Romney earlier Thursday when he said “we’re not going to beat Barack Obama with some guy who has Swiss bank accounts, Cayman Island accounts, owns shares of Goldman Sachs while it forecloses on Florida, and is himself a stockholder in Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac…..”

Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Romney gave his response in the debate accusing Gingrich of suggesting by innuendo “that there is something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments.”

He said, “Let’s put behind (us) this idea of attacking me because of my investments or my money and let’s get Republicans to say, 'You know what, ‘what you’ve accomplished in your life should not be seen as a detriment, it should be seen as an asset to help America.”

The debate also addressed the question of whether the federal government — and agencies such as Freddie Mac -- contributed to the housing collapse. Romney called Gingrich a “horn tooter” for Freddie Mac.

Romney has been criticizing Gingrich for weeks for being paid $1.6 million as a consultant to Freddie Mac, whose policies contributed to the 2004-2007 housing bubble.

Freddie Mac is “offering mortgages again to people who can’t possibly afford them,” Romney said.  

Gingrich replied that he had done no lobbying for Freddie Mac and that Romney owns shares in both Freddie Mac and the other federally-sponsored housing agency, Fannie Mae.

Gingrich also said Romney owns shares in Goldman Sachs which, he implied, had reaped profits from housing foreclosures. Gingrich asked rhetorically how much money Romney had made from households that had been foreclosed on.

Romney replied that “my investments for the past ten years have been in a blind trust.”

He turned to Gingrich and said “You also had investments in mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.”

Romney is now airing a TV ad in Nevada, which holds its Republican caucuses on Feb. 4, one week from Saturday, saying, “While Nevada families lost everythingin the housingcrisis, Newt Gingrich cashed in. Gingrich was paid over $1.6 million by the scandal-ridden agency that helped create the crisis.” The ad ends by flashinga photo of a smiling Obama as the voiceover says “If Newt wins, this guy would very happy.”

First Read: The tide may be turning in Florida 

Santorum got a big round of applause by urging the two men to cease their personal skirmishing and focus on national issues.

The debate began with a discussion of Romney’s idea that illegal immigrants should and will “self deport” if their ability to work in the United States is ended.

Gingrich, who served as House speaker from 1995 to 1999, said, "self-deportation will occur if you’re single,” but illegal immigrants who have been in the United States for many years would not leave. There needs to be “some level of humanity” for long-term illegal immigrants. “Grandmothers and grandfathers aren’t likely to self deport,” he said.

Romney took issue with a Gingrich TV ad -- which Gingrich has since pulled off the air – that had called Romney “anti-immigrant.”

“The idea that I am anti-immigrant is repulsive,” Romney said, glaring at Gingrich.

Romney said those who enter the United States legally would be given an identification card and work permit that would allow them to work.

Romney said no one was interested in rounding up 11 million illegal immigrants and deporting them – hence the need for illegal immigrants to leave voluntarily. “Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers,” he said, but rather younger illegal immigrants who take jobs that Americans might otherwise take.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., who is neutral in the race, has criticized Gingrich for running the ad that called Romney "anti-immigrant." Rubio told The Miami Herald that the phrasing in Gingrich’s ad was “inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn’t belong in this campaign.’’

He added that “neither of these two men is anti-immigrant. Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community.’’ Following Rubio’s criticism, the Gingrich campaign pulled the ad off the air.

Latino voters make up about 12 percent of the Florida Republican electorate — and they may be crucial on Tuesday. 

NBC Politics: Gingrich rages against the GOP machine

In an interview with Univision Thursday, Gingrich accused Romney of “inhumanity” for wanting to “deport grandmothers and grandfathers” – a reference to Romney’s opposition to any form of legalization for long-term illegal residents of the United States. 

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Thursday evening showed Gingrich does worse in a hypothetical November election contest against President Barack Obama than do Romney or Santorum among all poll respondents. 

In a Romney-Obama contest, Romney lags the president by six percentage points, but in a Gingrich-Obama contest, Gingrich trails by 18 points.

Yet among self-identified Republicans, Gingrich is the favorite for the nomination, beating Romney 37 percent to 28 percent, with 18 percent for Santorum, and 12 percent for Paul.