Florida GOP Debate: Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich Throw it Down

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Florida played host to the latest Republican presidential debate Monday night, and Mitt Romney came out swinging against newly-anointed co-frontrunner Newt Gingrich.

After Gingrich routed him in South Carolina, Romney was forced to change course from his usual try-not-to-lose strategy of appearing competent, inoffensive and vanilla.

Mitt apparently got the memo that in order to stop Florida (which holds its primary January 31) from becoming South Carolina redux, he actually has to show some fight.

As such, he blasted  as an influence peddler and disgraced politician in the debate, which marked the GOP race's most heated and personal exchanges to date.

Gingrich, the grand master of the 18 debates to date, and who pulled off a stunning upset in S.C. in large part due to some debate highlights, was, for once, thrown off.

The most shocking moment of last night may have been when Newt said nothing at all, briefly falling into a frustrated silence at one point amid Romney's barrage.

The night epitomized the direction of the race. It's the insurgents vs. the establishment, with Newt hoping to mobilize the former and Mitt looking to swat him down.

Romney's rapid-fire attacks lambasted Gingrich for working as a Freddie Mac "historian" and advocating health care policies while being paid by health care companies.

"You've been walking around this state saying things that are untrue," an irate Gingrich replied, denying that what he did should be considered lobbying.

"You can call it whatever you like," Romney shot back. "I call it influence peddling. It is not right." Gingrich then contrasted himself as the candidate of bold ideas.

Comparing himself to Ronald Reagan, he called himself "exactly the kind of bold, tough leader" Americans want, "someone prepared to be controversial when necessary."

Romney cited his record running the 2002 Olympics and said Gingrich "resigned in disgrace" as House speaker after an ethics controversy ... which Newt disputed.

On and on it went. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul also participated, but you wouldn't know it at times, as the majority of the questions went to Newt and Mitt.

A whopping 21 for Newt, 21 for Mitt, 12 for Rick, and 8 for Ron, by our count.

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