Nightly News   |  January 24, 2012

Decision 2012: candidates fight for Florida

On the trail today Mitt Romney challenged President Barack Obama and Newt Gingrich complained the rules at the NBC News debate limited his performance. NBC’s Peter Alexander reports.

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>>> nbc news republican debate from tampa, propelled gop candidates into the ground war today into the fight for the state of florida . and after going after newt gingrich last night, today as mitt romney 's finances were detailed, he chose to go after the president. nbc 's peter alexander has our report tonight from tampa.

>> reporter: mitt romney tried to upstage tonight's state of the union address with a scathing critique of obama's economic record.

>> three years ago, we measured candidate obam bah by his hopeful promises and his slogan slogans. today, president obama has amassed an actual record of debt, decline and disappointment.

>> reporter: last night romney abandoned what had been his above-the-fray style, instead aggressively challenging his republican rival, newt gingrich .

>> i think it's about leadership and the speaker was given the opportunity to be the leader of our party in 1994 and at the end of four years he had to resign in disgrace.

>> i'm not going to spend the evening trying to chase governor romney's misinformation.

>> reporter: gingrich , whose combative tone in past debates energized audiences. this morning, complained that the rules set by nbc news limiting crowd outbursts affected his performance.

>> the media doesn't control free speech. people ought to be allowed to applaud if they want to.

>> governor, the speaker said no more debates without audience participation. does that matter?

>> as i recall, the presidential commission doesn't have audience participation, so he better learn how to debate in all settings.

>> reporter: rick santorum tried to capitalize as the front-runners hammered away at one another.

>> when push came to shove, they got pushed. they didn't stand tall for the conservative principles that they argued that they were for.

>> reporter: back on the campaign trail in sarasota today, gingrich was greeted by a large crowd of supporters, and earlier in an attempt to blunt criticism about his three marriages, gingrich told the christian broadcasting network , he's learned from his experiences.

>> i have not hidden from the facts of my life. i have confessed my weaknesses and i had to go to god for forgiveness and for reconciliation.

>> also tonight, newt gingrich 's supporters tell nbc news that they have just bought $6 million in new ads to air here in the state of florida . and for his part, ron paul 's campaign says that paul is going to focus on other upcoming contests like maine, nevada and colorado. brian, all this is more evidence it's shaping up to be one long campaign primary season.

>> peter alexander in florida for