Immigration is flash point in Fla. primary

January 25, 2012

The Republican presidential race turned into a pitched battle for Hispanic voters on Wednesday, with Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney hurling insults over immigration policy as each looked for ways to court a critical constituency.

The shift reflected the nature of the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, where Hispanics will be a major factor for the first time in this year’s presidential contest. Florida is home to about 1 million Cuban Americans, a heavily Republican voting bloc.

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.

Still, Gingrich is making a strong bid for the Latino vote, and Republican strategists say his mastery of Latino issues coupled with his moderate tone on immigration could give him an edge over Romney.

Hispanics make up about 13 percent of Florida’s overall electorate and about 11 percent of registered GOP voters.

If Gingrich performs well in this group, it could blow a hole in a key argument promoted by Romney’s campaign that he is the best Republican to take on Obama in the fall.

Four years ago, Hispanics broke heavily for Obama, but polls show their support for the president has softened. While most say they plan to vote for him again this year, at least some could be open to the right Republican — someone who, like George W. Bush in 2000, can articulate the conservative message in a way that appears sensitive and inclusive toward Hispanics.

“I have to say that right now that Speaker Gingrich has an edge because he’s basically said we have to find a middle road,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “Romney on the other hand — and to me this is mind boggling — used very ugly rhetoric. . . . And policywise, the idea the undocumented, they all have to go home, that’s impossible.”

Immigration does not rank as the top issue for most Latinos, particularly in Florida, because Cubans have special rights to enter the country as refugees and Puerto Ricans are already citizens. But even these voters have sometimes bristled at the tone of Republican candidates toward illegal immigrants.

Romney has adopted some of the harshest rhetoric, asserting that welfare serves as a “magnet” for illegal border-crossers and attacking the Dream Act, which would have offered a path to citizenship for students and service members brought to the country illegally as children.

Still, he has his own outreach effort. Among the ads on steady rotation in Florida is one featuring one of his sons, Craig, speaking fluent Spanish. And he tried to make it clear in the debate that he supports the aspect of the Dream Act that would ease the path to citizenship for military members.

He also has support from leaders in the Cuban American community, including GOP Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart and former representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

“I think Romney will get the bulk of the Hispanic vote,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I know that the media loves to highlight immigration as if the Latino vote is all about immigration. But we’re about small businesses and opportunities for young families and homeownership.”

Gingrich, however, has long been viewed as an ally to conservative-minded Latinos, particularly Cuban Americans, and has staked out a hard-line position on U.S.-Cuba relations. In Congress, he was a vocal advocate of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and supported the establishment of Radio Marti, which transmits U.S. government-sanctioned programming to Cuba.

Last year, Gingrich’s communications company started The Americano, a conservative news and opinion Web site aimed at Hispanic conservatives. As part of his presidential campaign, he held Hispanic business roundtable events in Iowa and New Hampshire and reached out to Latino voters in South Carolina.

“He speaks with a great breadth of knowledge and authority and has a great record to show for it,” said Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist in Florida and adviser to former presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman (R). “He enjoys being out and campaigning in the Hispanic area. He enjoys the cafecito. He enjoys the Cuban radio. He revels in it.”

Polling analyst Scott Clement and staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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