At the opening of CNN's GOP debate, rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were out of the gate with a highly contentious exchange over Gingrich's ad asserting that Romney is "anti-immigrant."
"That's absolutely inexcusable," an indignant Romney blasted. "It's inexcusable. My father was born in Mexico.... and the phrase 'anti-immigrant' is repulsive. Don't use a term like that. It is simply the type of over the top rhetoric...I'm glad that Marco Rubio called you out on it, I'm glad you withdrew it, I think you should apologize for it."
Romney scolded using "highly charged epithets," to which he drew hearty cheers from the crowd.
Gingrich pressed, "What type of language would you use" to describe deporting "grandmothers" who have been here for years.
"Those are your words, not my words," Romney corrected. "I want them to come here legally."
Gingrich wasn't letting up with the grandmother comments, however, sneering, "Our problem is not 11 million grandmothers, alright?"
The crowd was audibly on Romney's side in this exchange.
Watch the blistering exchange below:
Earlier in the debate Thursday night, CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer attempted to entice Rick Santorum and Gingrich into attacking Romney on immigration.
It may have backfired.
Asked to respond to Romney’s past comment that illegal immigrants could potentially engage in "self-deportation," both Santorum offered tame responses.
“I actually agree with Gov. Romney,” Santorum said. “We have to have a country that not only do you respect the law when you come here, but you respect the law when you stay here.”
Gingrich, on the other hand, said he thinks Romney’s idea is unrealistic when it comes to older illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for decades.
“I don’t think grandmothers and grandfathers will self-deport,” Gingrich said.
Romney suggested that implementing an E-Verify system would ensure that “people who come here won’t be able to find work and over time” would leave eventually.