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Audience stacked for Florida debate? Not so, says state GOP

 

THE VILLAGES, Fla. -- The Republican Party of Florida is pushing back on reports that Mitt Romney’s campaign stacked the audience at the CNN debate Thursday in Jacksonville with its supporters -- a charge the party blames on aides to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

“I’m sorry if the Newt campaign feels like they didn’t have their best night, but I can’t allow the RPOF to be the scapegoat for that,” spokesman Brian Hughes told NBC News by telephone Friday night. 

"We worked very hard,” Hughes added.  “The irony is there were some grumblings by Romney’s people in the hours before the debate that we had stacked it for Newt.”

(The state party, not the Romney campaign, was responsible for seating about three-quarters of the 1,200-seat venue.)

The pushback from the state party follows a story in the Huffington Post that quotes a Gingrich aide saying Romney’s campaign “definitely packed the room” in Jacksonville. 

The aide, Kevin Kellems, was apparently making a reference to applause Romney enjoyed during several sharp exchanges with Gingrich.  It marked a reversal of sorts for the former speaker, who won the support of crowds during two debates in South Carolina last week.

Romney campaign officials dismissed allegations that they packed the debate hall Thursday. One senior spokesman said he had invited only his parents.

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Speaking in Orlando on Friday night, Romney compared the Gingrich campaign to Goldilocks complaining about her bowls of porridge being too hot or too cold.

"I'm looking forward to debating Barack Obama. I'm not going to worry about the crowd," Romney said.

Hughes tells NBC News that the state party worked to ensure that 900 seats went to unaffiliated Republican voters and remained off limits to volunteers and others connected to campaigns. There were 4,000 total requests for seats via the party’s website and county Republican offices.

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Hughes says that voters found to be affiliated with candidates were told to seek seats from the campaigns, each of which had an equally distributed number.

“Any time that we saw a name that we recognized, or had a suspicion, we contacted those people, and said, 'listen, you’re affiliated with X campaign,'" Hughes says.

The Florida Republican Party is not endorsing a candidate for president until the national party has a nominee.

NBC’s Garrett Haake contributed to this report.