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," Mr. 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."
Mr. 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, Mr. 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."
Mr. Romney, on the attack against Mr. 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," Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Romney attempting to capitalize on Mr. Gingrich's slip in the polls as some big-name conservatives sounded dire warnings about the former speaker of the House of Representatives.
The 19th debate of the Republican race was considered a particularly critical one for Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich, with each looking to land a knockout punch that could vastly boost their chances of ultimately winning the party's nomination.
Mr. 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 Mr. Romney dropped the gloves to attack him on his past consulting work with detested federal mortgage agency Freddie Mac.
Mr. 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.
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 Governor Rick Perry all but sunk his campaign.
Mr. 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.