A visibly angry Mitt Romney today demanded an apology from Newt Gingrich for labeling him "anti-immigrant," calling the former House speaker's rhetoric "repulsive" and "inexcusable."
"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive," Romney said at the Republican debate sponsored by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network. "Don't say things like that."
When asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer whether Romney is the most anti-immigrant candidate, Gingrich responded, "I think of the four of us, yes," referring to the candidates on stage.
Romney called Gingrich's charge "the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized the American politics too long."
He mentioned his father, who was born in Mexico.
"I think you should apologize for it," Romney said.
Gingrich dubbed his opponent anti-immigrant in a Spanish-language ad that he eventually pulled after harsh criticism from the state's Republican, Cuban-American U.S. senator, Marco Rubio, who said the ad was "unbecoming of a presidential candidate."
Today, the former speaker said he was equally offended by an ad from Romney mischaracterizing his views on Spanish language. Gingrich has said he supports making English the official language of the United States, a line that earned applause from the debate crowd.
Romney first said that he was not aware of the ad, but when he was told that the ad ends with his approval, the crowd booed.
The two also went at each other on their connections with federally-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Gingrich, repeating his line of attack, pointed to Romney's investments in mutual bonds that own assets in those two firms. Romney responded by pointing out that Gingrich owns similar investments. The former speaker charged that the comparison was comparing tiny amounts to a "giant elephant," a jab at Romney's enormous wealth.
Gingrich and Romney are neck-and-neck in polls, with Ron Paul and Rick Santorum well behind.
Gingrich has strong support among the state's Tea Party groups, but Romney leads by a wide margin among Hispanics.
A new CNN/Time Magazine/Opinion Research Corporation poll out late Wednesday found Romney and Gingrich in a statistical dead heat in Florida.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that in a hypothetical general election matchup, Romney would be the stronger candidate to run against Obama in Florida. Romney and Obama were tied at 45 percent, while the president led Gingrich 50 percent to 39 percent among registered voters.