Mitt Romney, fighting for his political life in Florida after his stunning defeat in the South Carolina primary, launched a sustained and ferocious broadside against his rival Newt Gingrich in the most bitter yet of 18 Republican presidential debates.

The former Massachusetts governor, struggling to cling onto his status as Republican frontrunner,  branded Mr Gingrich an ‘influence peddler’ in Washington who ‘had to resign in disgrace’ as Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Mr Gingrich, unable to lay off a raucous crowd as he had in two South Carolina debates, was subdued, saying: ‘Well, look, I’m not going to spend the evening  trying to chase Governor Romney’s misinformation.’

But he charged Mr Romney with ‘walking around the state saying things that are untrue’ and rejected the accusation he had been a lobbyist – revealing that he had employed an ‘expert on lobbying’ to ensure he did not cross the line from being a consultant.

The Republican frontrunners clashed repeatedly in heated, personal terms tonight in a crackling campaign debate in Tampa, Florida.

The debate marked the first encounter among the four remaining GOP contenders – former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul shared the stage – since Gingrich won the South Carolina primary in an upset last weekend, a double-digit victory that reset the race to pick a rival to challenge President Obama this fall.

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