WASHINGTON - The Republican presidential candidates blasted off to the final frontier Thursday, exploring strange new ideas about life on the moon and going boldly where no debate has gone before.
Newt Gingrich defended his insistence that the United States should build a colony on the moon, even suggesting it could become a 51st state.
"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich told the latest Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, on the so-called Space Coast of Florida, to a feeble smattering of applause.
"I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."
Gingrich, who's falling in the polls in Florida against Mitt Romney just a few days before the state primary, has already proposed a "Northwest Ordinance for Space," which would allow the moon's residents to apply to become an American state once its population reaches 13,000.
As he reiterated his lunar proposals at the CNN debate, Gingrich's three rivals for the nomination seemed to be struggling not to burst into laughter. Ron Paul, dismissing the idea, quipped: "We should send some politicians to the moon."
Romney, on the attack against Gingrich during one of his best debate performances since the race kicked off last spring, had a more serious response to the query from a CNN viewer.
"That's an enormous expense," Romney said, pointing out that the United States has a mammoth national debt and is struggling to recover from a devastating economic recession.
"Of course, the space coast has been badly hurt...(but) I'd rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S."
He also accused Gingrich, his chief rival for the nomination, of routinely making pie-in-the-sky promises tailored to wherever he's campaigning. NASA employs thousands at the Kennedy Space Center just down the road from Jacksonville.
He added: "I spent 25 years in business. 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.'"
The moon debate came as the four remaining Republican presidential hopefuls sparred yet again, with Romney attempting to capitalize on Gingrich's slip in the polls as some big-name conservatives sounded dire warnings about the former speaker of the House of Representatives.
Romney scored the first hits, attacking Gingrich's accusations that he's the most anti-immigration candidate in the field.
"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive — don't use a term like that," said an uncharacteristically fiery Romney, reminding Gingrich that his father was born in Mexico and chiding him for his "over-the-top rhetoric."
The 19th debate of the Republican race was considered a particularly critical one for Romney and Gingrich, with each looking to land a knockout punch that could vastly boost their chances of ultimately winning the party's nomination.
Gingrich, a consistently strong debater, was off his game Thursday night, just as he was during the first Florida debate a few nights earlier when Romney dropped the gloves to attack him on his past consulting work with detested federal mortgage agency Freddie Mac.
Gingrich had griped that NBC had censored the audience by banning them from applauding during that faceoff in Tampa.
But that wasn't the case on Thursday night. The crowd was allowed to cheer or jeer as they pleased during the showdown, the last one until Feb. 22.
And Romney got as many roars of approval as Gingrich as he frequently challenged his foe. He demanded an apology from Gingrich on his immigration accusations, then turned the tables on him when the onetime speaker accused him of once investing in Freddie Mac.
"Have you checked your own investments?" said Romney, noting that his investments had been made via a blind trust.
In fact, Gingrich too had invested money in the mortgage agency, and not through a blind trust, Romney countered. The former speaker blanched, clearly caught off guard.
The televised debates have proven crucial in the Republican race.
A combined 88 million people have watched them, and a bad debate performance has been as damaging to a campaign as a good one has been a boon. Indeed, a series of cringe-worthy debate moments by Texas Gov. Rick Perry all but sunk his campaign.
Gingrich's refusal to give up his moon fantasy could prove to be one of those moments, if the mid-debate ridicule from pundits in the Twitterverse was any indication.
"What the hell is the press going to do when the moon state moves its primary up to follow Iowa and New Hampshire?" tweeted Craig Robinson under the handle IowaGOPer.
Chimed in Larry Sabato, a well-known University of Virginia political scientist: "It's true. When I ask people about America's needs, over 90 per cent volunteer: 'Moon colony.'"
A handful of polls released Thursday had Romney pulling ahead of Gingrich. That's despite Gingrich's stunning double-digit win in the South Carolina primary less than a week ago.
Romney and Gingrich have been hitting one another hard in Florida over both their professional and personal pecadilloes, with Romney spending as much as US$14 million to attack his rival on everything from his character to his troubled tenure in the 1990s as speaker.
Gingrich has been returning fire, painting Romney as out-of-touch by pointing to his Swiss and Cayman Island bank accounts. Meantime, his supporters have been coughing up millions to run anti-Romney ads throughout Florida.
The state is defined by sharp class divisions as the United States struggles to recover from a devastating economic recession.
Florida ranks fourth in the United States for the most number of billionaires, yet one in every 360 houses in the state is in foreclosure, the fifth highest rate in the nation.
The battle between Romney and Gingrich for the state is representative of those fault lines. Gingrich is popular with the angry Tea Party crowd in Florida, while Romney is the favoured candidate among the well-heeled, country club Republicans.
But in the face of yet another poll on Thursday showing Romney is best-positioned to face Obama in a general election, conservative knives are out for Gingrich. The Quinnipiac University survey has Romney and Obama tied at 45 to 45 per cent in Florida, while Obama outpaces Gingrich at 50 to 39 per cent.
The Drudge Report, an online conservative news site, had an item overnight alleging Gingrich frequently insulted and ridiculed former president Ronald Reagan, the man he publicly holds up as his inspiration.
Bob Dole, the Republican nominee in 1996, said Thursday a Gingrich nomination would sink the party's candidates from coast to coast in November's election.
"It is now time to take a stand before it is too late," Dole said in a statement emailed by the Romney campaign.
"Hardly anyone who served with Newt in Congress has endorsed him and that fact speaks for itself…. He was a one-man-band who rarely took advice. It was his way or the highway."
Indeed, even Tom DeLay, a top Gingrich deputy in the 1990s who resigned from the House of Representatives amid his own scandal, is taking aim at Gingrich. DeLay was part of the Republican congressional coup that forced Gingrich out of his job as speaker in 1997.
"He's not really a conservative," DeLay said in a radio interview.
"I mean, he'll tell you what you want to hear. He has an uncanny ability, sort of like Clinton, to feel your pain and know his audience and speak to his audience and fire them up. But when he was speaker, he was erratic, undisciplined."
DeLay was forced to resign from the House after being indicted on money-laundering charges in an attempt to circumvent campaign finance law. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison, but is appealing the decision.