Gingrich fails to stand out from debate crowd

The last Republican debate before Florida's primary may have been the most substantive of all of them.

Everyone thought Thursday night's session would largely consist of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich going at each other, and there were plenty of sparks -- but the interesting thing about it was that everyone brought their A-game. It was the 19th GOP debate, and really one of the best.

All four participants did a good job explaining their positions, and that is not good news for Gingrich, who needed a standout performance to suggest he alone could take on Barack Obama -- and he didn't have that.

Florida GOP debate: Winners and losers">
Special section: Election 2012

Moments after they took the stage, the expected fireworks between Romney and Gingrich went off.

"Maybe," said Gingrich, "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? But let's be clear about that."

"Mr. Speaker," Romney responded, "I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments?"

The two frontrunners immediately sparred over government-backed mortgage giant Freddie Mac, whose loans helped trigger the housing crisis. Gingrich has done work for the company; but he said Romney at one point had investments in it. Romney said the former House speaker did, too.

Texas congressman Ron Paul drew applause when he said, "That subject really doesn't interest me a whole lot. 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."

And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum hammered the point home, asking, "Can we set aside that Newt was a member of Congress and used the skills that he developed as a member of Congress to go out and advise companies -- and that's not the worst thing in the world -- and that Mitt Romney is a wealthy guy because he worked hard and he's going out and working hard? And you guys should leave that alone and focus on the issues."

On many of the issues, there weren't a lot of differences -- except on the question -- and yes, this came up -- of exploring the moon.

Gingrich, who said in a campaigns top earlier this week he'd want the U.S. to go back to the moon, said Thursday night, "I'll tell you, I do not want to be the country that, having gotten to the moon first, turned around and said, 'It doesn't really matter. Let the Chinese dominate space. What do we care?"'

"I spent 25 years in business," Romney chimed in. "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired."'

Romney owned that phrase last night -- and also was blunt about his wealth, saying, "I'm proud of being successful, I'm proud of being in the free enterprise system that creates jobs for other people. I'm not going to run from that."

To see Jan Crawford's full report, click on the video in the player above,

  • Jan Crawford On Twitter» On Facebook»

    Jan Crawford is CBS News Chief Political and Legal Correspondent. She is from "Crossroads," Alabama.