The man of the night at the Jan. 26 University of North Florida Republican debate wasn't Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul – in fact, he wasn't even on stage.
Some might say it was Sen. Marco Rubio.
Rubio was favored by three of the four candidates as a Hispanic pick for their administrations – with frontrunner Gingrich hinting that he might pick Rubio as his vice president.
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The four candidates were asked: "Which of our Hispanic leaders would you consider to serve in your Cabinet?"
Santorum immediately replied, "Well, I mean I hate to throw one to Florida, but obviously your Sen. Marco Rubio is a pretty impressive guy."
Gingrich added, "When you think Cabinet, I think for example of Susana Martinez, the governor of New Mexico. You know, at the Cabinet level, I think of somebody like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen."
Then Gingrich hinted at a potential choice for vice president, saying, "I actually thought about Marco Rubio on a slightly more dignified and central role than being in the Cabinet, but that's another conversation."
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The crowd broke into applause.
Romney listed several Hispanics for his Cabinet, including Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, the Diaz-Belart brothers, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mel Martinez and Marco Rubio.
'Self-deportation' and 11 million illegal grandmas?
In a heated discussion over illegal alien "self-deportation, CNN's Wolf Blitzer, moderator of the debate, asked Gingrich why he described Romney as "the most anti-immigrant candidate" in a campaign ad he recently pulled.
"Because, in the original conversations about deportation, the position I took, which he attacked pretty ferociously, was that grandmothers and grandfathers aren't going to be successfully deported," Gingrich replied. "We as a nation are not going to walk into some family – and by the way, they're going to end up in a church, which will declare them a sanctuary. We're not going to walk in there and grab a grandmother out and then kick them out."
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The crowd laughed and cheered when Romney responded, "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers."
He continued, "Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have. It's school kids in schools that districts are having a hard time paying for. It's people getting free health care because we are required under the law to provide that health care."
Romney and Gingrich invested in Fannie, Freddie
When the topic turned to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Gingrich declared to the audience that Romney owns shares of both mortgage lenders.
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"Gov. Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that," he said. "Gov. Romney has an investment in Goldman Sachs, which is today foreclosing on Floridians. So maybe Gov. Romney, in the spirit of openness, should tell us how much money he's made off of how many households that have been foreclosed by his investments."
Romney explained that his investments are managed by a blind trust managed by a trustee. He said those investments were in mutual funds and bonds.
"I don't own stock in either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac," Romney said. "There are bonds that the investor has held through mutual funds."
Then Romney fired at Gingrich: "And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac."
Gingrich replied, "Comparing my investments with his is like comparing a tiny mouse with a giant elephant."
Blitzer asked Paul: "It seems they both acknowledge they both made money from Fannie and Freddie. Should they return that money?"
"That subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot," Paul said, drawing laughs and applause. "But the question does. The question is: What are we going to do about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac? It should have been auctioned off right after the crash came. It would have been cleansed by now. It all should have been sold."
Let's talk taxes …
Romney's campaign has come under fire for amending his 2011 financial disclosure to show that a trust earned $3 million in interest profits from a Swiss account, a detail that had been previously absent. Amid recent debate over Romney's tax record, Blitzer asked Gingrich if he is satisfied right now with the level of transparency Romney has provided after releasing his 2010 tax return.
"I don't know of any American president who has had a Swiss bank account," Gingrich replied.
"There's nothing wrong with that," Romney said. "And I know that there may be some who try to make a deal of that, as you have publicly. But look, I think it's important for people to make sure that we don't castigate individuals who have been successful and try and, by innuendo, suggest there's something wrong with being successful and having investments and having a return on those investments."
On the subject of higher taxes for the wealthiest Americans, Santorum said: "What I believe is we need to reduce taxes. Look, I'm honest. I don't reduce the higher top rate as much as these other folks do. I take the Reagan approach. Ronald Reagan had a 28 percent top rate. If it was good enough for Ronald Reagan, it's good enough for me. And that's what we put the top rate as."
Asked whether he agreed with former President Ronald Reagan on tax rates, Paul replied, "No, he taxed too much. My goal is to get rid of the 16th Amendment."
Conservative blitz on Gingrich?
Prior to the debate, Gingrich faced an onslaught of attacks from conservatives. During the event, Gingrich noted, "It's increasingly interesting to watch the Romney attack machine coordinate things. And all of a sudden, today, there are like four different articles by four different people that randomly show up."
The American Spectator's R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. ripped into Gingrich with his commentary, "William Jefferson Gingrich," declaring: "Newt Gingrich is conservatism's Bill Clinton, but without the charm. He has acquired wit but he has all the charm of barbed wire. Newt and Bill are 1960s generation narcissists, and they share the same problems: waywardness and deviancy."
Bob Dole, a Mitt Romney supporter and former GOP presidential nominee, assailed Gingrich for being a "one-man-band who rarely took advice."
"If Gingrich is the nominee it will have an adverse impact on Republican candidates running for county, state, and federal offices," Dole said. "Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway."
Tom DeLay, a top deputy to Gingrich during the 1990s, criticized Gingrich's leadership style and compared him to Bill Clinton. In a radio interview, he said, "He's not really a conservative. I mean, he'll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability, sort of like Clinton, to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined."
Even Ann Coulter, in her column on WND, warned: "Re-elect Obama, Vote Newt!"
Peace in 'Palestine' and Israel
Abraham Hassel, a man who described himself as a Palestinian-American Republican, asked the four candidates: "How would a Republican administration help bring peace to Palestine and Israel when most candidates barely recognize the existence of Palestine or its people?"
Romney noted that there's no peace between Palestinians and Israel because Hamas intends to eliminate Israel.
"Whether it's in school books that teach how to kill Jews, or whether it's in the political discourse that is spoken either from Fatah or from Hamas, there is a belief that the Jewish people do not have a right to have a Jewish state," he explained. "The Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It's the Palestinians who don't want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel."
Romney said America must stand with Israel, adding, "We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel. … I think [Obama] threw Israel under the bus with regards to defining the '67 borders as a starting point of negotiations. I think he disrespected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu."
Blitzer noted that Gingrich "got into a little hot water" when he called Palestinians an "invented people."
"It was technically an invention of the late 1970s, and it was clearly so," Gingrich said, standing by his earlier assertion. "Prior to that, they were Arabs. Many of them were either Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian or Jordanian."
The crowd cheered when Gingrich concluded: "On the first day that I'm president, if I do become president, I will sign an executive order directing the State Department to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to send the signal we're with Israel."
Why are you the one to beat Obama?
Finally, Blitzer asked the candidates: Why are you the one person on this stage most likely to beat President Obama?
Paul told voters: "We have some pretty good evidence that I'll do quite well and have a better chance than the rest to beat him, because if you do a national poll, I do very, very well against Obama. But one of the reasons is, is that the freedom message in the Constitution is very appealing to everybody in all political beliefs because it includes free markets, which conservatives endorse, but it also protects civil liberties, the way people run their lives. If it is a God-given life, and it's your life, you should have the right to run your life as you so choose as long as you don't harm other people."
Then Romney explained why he believes he is the candidate to beat Obama.
"I believe, if you just elect the same people to change chairs in Washington, not much happen. I think, if you want to change Washington, you're going to have to bring someone in who has been on the outside," he said. "I have lived in the private sector. I know how it works. I've competed with businesses around the world. I know how to win. … I will use the experience of my life to get America right. And I will be able to convince the American people that someone with my experience is very different than Barack Obama. And that experience is how I'll beat him."
Gingrich told the crowd he is running for his two grandchildren, Maggie and Robert.
"I'd like them to be able to look back 50 years from now and say that what we did, what we the American people did, the choice we made in 2012 to unleash the American people, to rebuild our country based on the core values, to pose for the American people a simple choice: Do you want freedom and independence and a paycheck and a job, or do you want dependence and big government and food stamps and a lack of future?"
He added, "And I believe, if we have a big election with truly historic big choices, that we can defeat Barack Obama by a huge margin. But it won't be by running just as a Republican. It will be an American campaign open to every American who prefers a paycheck to food stamps, who prefers the Declaration of Independence to Saul Alinsky and who prefers a strong national security to trying to appease our enemies."
Finally, Santorum wrapped up the debate with his answer:
"I'm not for a top- down government-run health care system. I wasn't for the Wall Street bailouts like these two gentlemen were. … Cap-and-trade – both of them bought into the global warming hoax, bought into the cap-and-trade, top-down control of our energy and manufacturing sector.
"If you look at President Obama's speech the other night, what did he lead with? He led with manufacturing. He led with manufacturing why? … Those are the blue-collar working people of America who know that this president has left them behind. He has a plan for them, and it's more dependency, not work, not opportunity.
"So he went out and tried to make a play for manufacturing. That's been the center point of my campaign. The center point of my campaign is to be able to win the industrial heartland, get those Reagan Democrats back, talking about manufacturing, talking about building that ladder of success all the way down so people can climb all the way up.
"That's why I'm the best person to be able to go out and win the states that are necessary to win this presidency and govern with the mandate that Newt just talked about."