All Eyes on Iran in Florida Presidential Debate

With Romney slipping in the polls, and Gingrich gaining momentum, the debate turned into an acrimonious bout between the two Republican frontrunners. The two, however, could agree on one thing: the Iranian threat.

In just two weeks, the U.S. Republican primaries turned from what seemed as a almost inevitable result (with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney riding high in polls, with highest number of party endorsements and with victories in two states) to the big unknown - with three candidates claiming a victory each (Rick Santorum in Iowa, Mitt Romney in New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich in South Carolina). Mitt Romney is slipping in the polls, while reporters’ mailboxes are exploding of attack ads from each camp. The next few days promise to bring even more negativity.

During Monday night’s Republican debate, held at the University of South Florida in Tampa, the candidates spoke about taxes, "Obamacare", electability and the hypothetical 3 A.M. call reporting on the Cuban dictator's death. Former speaker Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney clashed again and again, with Romney criticizing Gingrich's failed leadership and his lobbyist ventures.

Republicans - AP - December 2011

“You spent now 15 years in Washington on K Street, and this is a real problem, if we’re going to nominate someone who not only had a record of great distress as the speaker, but that has worked for 15 years lobbying”, Romney said to Gingrich.

Gingrich defended his work for Freddie Mac, saying: "I've never done any lobbying.... The only report in the newspaper was in the New York Times in July of 2008, which said I told the House Republicans they should vote no, not give Freddie Mac any money because it needed to be reformed".

He also retorted that he is "not going to spend the evening trying to chase Governor Romney's misinformation", promising to list it on his website, and calling on the audience to watch videos of Mike Huckabee and John McCain's attacks against Romney from 2007-2008.

Talking about his electability, Gingrich turned to former President and conservative icon Ronald Reagan, saying that "in 1980, when Ronald Reagan started the year about 30 points behind Jimmy Carter, and when the Republican establishment described his economic ideas as "voodoo economics," Reagan just cheerfully went out and won the debate, won the nomination, and won the general election."

Mitt Romney attacked Gingrich again, saying that in 1994 he was given an opportunity to be a leader, and "at the end of four years, he had to resign in disgrace from his job as speaker. In the 15 years after he left the speakership, the speaker has been working as an influence peddler in Washington".

The candidates were also asked to comment on Iran’s threatening to close the Straits of Hormuz. Was it, in their opinion, an act of war?

Mitt Romney said "of course it's an act of war,” adding that it is “appropriate and essential for our military, for our Navy to maintain open seas…we want them to see that we're so strong they couldn't possibly defeat us. We want to show Iran any action of that nature will be considered an act of war, an act of terror and America is going to keep those sea lanes open".

Newt Gingrich responded by saying that the United States has historically sought peace, saying it is dangerous that “Iranians think that in fact this president is so weak they could close the Straits of Hormuz and not suffer substantial consequence."

On the other hand, Congressman Ron Paul said that the root of the current Iranian threats are the international sanctions being imposed on the Islamic Republic.

"We're blockading them", he said. "Can you imagine what we would do if somebody blockaded the Gulf of Mexico? That would be an act of war.” Paul further stated that taking on Iran would be “the most foolish thing in the world to do.”

Senator Rick Santorum said Iran had committed several acts of war: "They are holding hostages; they are attacking our troops; the IEDs, the improvised explosive devices that are killing our troops in Afghanistan and killed them in Iraq.”

“You look at these ships that have been attacked by Iran. Embassies were attacked by Iran…It is a long list of attacks, of warlike behavior, on the part of this regime," Santorum added.

Santorum focused his attack on President Obama's policy, saying "Obama's Iran policy has been a colossal failure. It's been a failure because he's not been true to the American public about the threat that Iran poses to the world -- not just to Israel but to the world and to the United States.”