Fidel Castro in hell, Americans on Mars, “self-deportation” of illegal aliens and an unwarranted U.S. attacks on Iran?

Those are just a few of the various topics discussed at the first of two Republican debates in Florida before the state’s Jan. 31 primary. The NBC News debate, moderated by NBC’s Brian Williams, had been hyped as a dramatic showdown between the top two Republican candidates in the race – Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich – in the midst of ongoing sparring over release of Romney’s tax returns and Gingrich’s Freddie Mac “consulting” record.

Mitt, Newt wrangle over records

Romney began by firing at Gingrich: “We just learned today that his contract with Freddie Mac was provided by the lobbyists at Freddie Mac. I don’t think we can possibly retake the White House if the person who is leading our party is the person who was working for the head chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac. Freddie Mac was paying Speaker Gingrich $1,600,000 at the same time that Freddie Mac was costing the people of Florida millions upon millions of dollars.”

Gingrich flatly denied peddling influence, saying, “I was supposed to do consulting work. … There’s no place in the contract that provides for lobbying. I’ve never done any lobbying. There’s a point in this process where it gets unnecessarily personal and nasty, and that’s sad.”

Romney argued that the contract Gingrich recently released doesn’t say he provided “historical experience.”

“It says that you were hired as a consultant, and you were hired by the chief lobbyist of Freddie Mac – not the CEO, not the head of public affairs – by the chief lobbyist at Freddie Mac,” he barked at Gingrich. “You also spoke publicly in favor of these GSEs, these government-sponsored entities, at the very time that Freddie Mac was getting America in a position where we we’d have a massive housing collapse. You could have spoken out aggressively.”

Likewise, Gingrich has been hammering Romney on his reluctance to release his tax records. The former Massachusetts governor released more than 500 pages of tax documents records today, indicating that he will pay $6.2 million in taxes on $45.2 million in income for 2010 and 2011.

At the debate, Romney promised “no surprises” in his financial disclosures.

“Oh, I’m sure people will talk about it,” he said. “I mean, you’ll see my income, how much taxes I’ve paid, how much I paid to charity. You’ll see how complicated taxes can be. But I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes. … Is it entirely legal and fair? Absolutely.”

Gingrich said Romney’s decision to release tax documents is “the right thing to do.”

Paul as 3rd party candidate?

Later, the debate turned to Ron Paul as NBC’s Brian Williams asked the Texas representative, “If Newt Gingrich emerges from the GOP primary process as the nominee of the party, do you go your own way?”

“Well, I’ve done a lot of that in my lifetime,” Paul replied, to the audible amusement of the crowd.

Williams clarified: “I should be more specific. Will you run as a third-party candidate?”

“I have no plans to do that, no intention,” Paul said. “When I’ve been pressed on it, they asked me why, and I said I don’t want to. But I haven’t been an absolutist. When I left Congress, I didn’t have any plans on going back, but I did after 12 years. I went back to medicine. So, no, I don’t have any plans to do that, no.”

Then Williams asked Paul if he would support Gingrich as the Republican nominee if he wins.

“He keeps hinting about attacking the Fed, and he talks about gold,” Paul replied. “You know, if I could just change him on foreign policy, we might be able to talk business.”

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