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The populist scraps with the patrician in the River City Rumble

The populist faced off with the patrician.

Newt Gingrich was expected to take it to Mitt Romney, whom he savaged on the campaign trail for Romney’s ties to Goldman Sachs and his bank accounts in Switzerland and the Cayman Islands.

But Romney unexpectedly struck first when it came to one of the most treacherous of Florida political issues: Immigration – and Gingrich’s claims in a Spanish-language radio ad that Romney was “anti-immigrant.”

“That's simply unexcusable. That's inexcusable,” Romney, said glaring at Gingrich. “And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.”

Gingrich edited the ad after Rubio made those comments Wednesday to The Miami Herald. The following day, the morning of the debate, Rubio praised Gingrich.

But the damage was done.

Wild cheers greeted Romney’s salvo. The crowd had returned after taking a break in Tampa’s Monday debate. And the people in the hall were with Romney in Jacksonville, a stronghold for the Republican where the GOP establishment has rallied behind him.

On the campaign trail, though, away from the air-conditioned comfort of the University of North Florida’s debate hall, Gingrich had the crowds. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, showed up to hear the former House Speaker speak.

This was supposed to be the debate that would prove critical in Tuesday’s Republican primary. There was no clear winner or loser, but Romney had the edge. Polls show the race is exceedingly close, but Romney might be surging amid statewide ad blitz.

Yet the Republican Party of Florida-sponsored debate lived up to its nickname: The River City Rumble. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum played the roles of foils, chiding the frontrunners for bickering and, at times, not answering questions.

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