Just days before the key Florida primary, the two leading candidates for the Republican nomination for U.S. president have clashed in a debate over immigration to America.
Immigration is seen as a particularly powerful issue in Florida, which has a large Hispanic population.
Many of America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are from Latin American countries.
The debate was the final formal Republican debate before the important Florida primary on January 31, in which the winner will claim all of Florida’s 50 delegates in the race for the nomination to oppose President Barack Obama in November’s election.
Nearly 2,300 delegates are at stake nationwide in the Republican race, and a candidate must accumulate the support of at least 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.
In the debate in the Florida city of Jacksonville, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who is narrowly leading in the most recent opinion polls, expressed outrage after his main rival, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, described Romney as the Republican candidate most opposed to new immigration to America.
Romney called the description “repulsive,” saying his father had been born in the United States’ southern neighbor Mexico.
Gingrich has offered what is described as a softer version of immigration policy than most Republican conservatives.
In the debate, Gingrich said U.S. authorities could not, rationally, deport millions of people, and that some who had lived in America for decades should be allowed to stay.
"We're not going to walk in there and grab a grandmother out and kick them out," he said. "I think you have to be realistic in your indignation. I want to control the border. I want English to be the official language of government. I want us to have a lot of changes."
A Two-Horse Race?
Gringrich and Romney agreed that they want to clamp down on illegal immigration to the U.S. They also concurred on creating programs to make sure jobs go only to legal immigrants, and on deporting some of the millions of men and women who are in the United States unlawfully.
Though two other candidates remain in the race, the Republican contest is widely seen as being a competition between Gingrich and Romney.
Gingrich won the primary in South Carolina on January 21, while Romney was victorious in the earlier New Hampshire primary.
But with Romney having more funding and a bigger campaign organization than Gingrich, experts say a Gingrich win in Florida is crucial to his survival in the race.
The two other candidates, Rick Santorum, the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, and Texas Congressman Ron Paul, are lagging behind in opinion polls.
compiled from agency reports