But it also has implications for the fall campaign, with both parties planning aggressive outreach campaigns to reach Hispanic swing voters in several battleground states.
Gingrich lobbed the first attack on Wednesday, poking fun at Romney during an appearance on Miami-based Univision, the country’s biggest Spanish-language network. Gingrich peppered his remarks with halting Spanish as he accused Romney of living in a “fantasy land” for suggesting in a debate that the country’s 11 million illegal immigrants should “self deport.”
Romney also stepped up his attacks on Gingrich, releasing a Spanish-language ad noting that the former House speaker once called Spanish the “language of the ghetto.” Also on Univision, Romney said Gingrich’s mocking of him was a cheap attempt to garner votes.
“Now, I recognize that it’s very tempting to come into an audience like this and to pander to the audience and say what you hope people will want to hear,” Romney told host Jorge Ramos. “But frankly, I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate.”
The back-and-forth came as several party elders, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, prepared this week to host a Hispanic Republican summit at a Miami area resort. Among the featured speakers will be Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a political star who is on the short list of possible Republican vice presidential picks.
Rubio, a Cuban American elected to office in 2010 with the backing of the tea party, has not endorsed anyone in the primary. But in an interview with the Miami Herald, he sharply criticized Gingrich for running an ad that accuses Romney of being “anti-immigrant” and that reminds voters of a gaffe four years ago in which Romney inadvertently used a pro-Castro slogan in his presidential campaign.
Gingrich aides said Wednesday the ad was no longer in circulation. Asked why he pulled it, he told reporters in Cocoa, Fla.: “I have great respect for Senator Rubio.”
Gingrich, for his part, has said he used inartful language in the 2007 speech in which he referred to Spanish as the language of “living in a ghetto.”
Romney appears to have the upper hand with Florida’s Hispanics who are likely to vote in the primary, who prefer him over Gingrich by a 26-point margin, according to a new ABC News/Univision poll. That is a shift from the 2008 primary, when Romney came in third among Hispanics behind Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, with about 14 percent of the vote.
Another advantage for Romney may be that nearly 400,000 voters have already cast their ballots through Florida’s absentee voting — a sizable number considering that just under 2 million GOP voters cast ballots in the primary four years ago. Many of those votes came in before the South Carolina primary that catapulted Gingrich back into the top tier.