MIAMI — Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney accused his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Newt Gingrich, of pandering to Florida’s Latino voters by mocking Romney’s stance on immigration in an appearance earlier Wednesday.
Romney struck back at Gingrich on a day when both candidates spent much of the day in Miami, speaking at events designed to appeal to the state’s large Latino community.
Romney spoke at the same candidate forum sponsored by Univision television where Gingrich had earlier in the day accused Romney of living in a “fantasy land” for suggesting in a debate last week that illegal immigrants would “self deport” — voluntarily return to their home countries — if the United States made it difficult enough for them to get work in this country.
“Unfortunately for him, these are things he’s already spoken out about, and he’s spoken out about in favor,” Romney said, referring to an earlier comment from Gingrich’s spokesman that also suggested that immigrants might “self-deport.”
“Now, I recognized that 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 Univision host Jorge Ramos. “But frankly, I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate.”
On Wednesday, Romney’s campaign released a new Spanish language ad, in which he accused Gingrich of not being the Reagan conservative he claims. The ad criticizes Gingrich for a consulting contract with Freddie Mac and indicating he would not reverse an Obama policy allowing easier travel to Cuba for family members of Cubans.
“Reagan definitely would have never offended us, Hispanics, as Gingrich did by saying that Spanish is the language of the ghetto,” the ad concludes, referring to a 2007 remark by Gingrich for which he later apologized.
The back-and-forth was a demonstration of the importance of the growing Hispanic vote and particularly the Cuban-American community, traditionally a key Republican constituency in Florida.
Like Gingrich earlier in the day, Romney offered tough talk against Cuban Communist dictator Fidel Castro at a speech organized by the US-Cuba Democracy PAC.
“If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president of the United States, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet,” Romney said. “We have to be prepared. This is the time, in the next president’s first or second term, it is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president.”
Romney also promised to create a new office to improve trade with Latin America, and at the Univision forum, joked with Ramos about his own roots.
“I don’t think people would think I was being honest with them if I said to them I was Mexican American,” Romney said in response to about whether he could claim the title because his American father was born in Mexico. “But I would appreciate it if you’d get that word out.”
But under tougher questioning from Jorge Ramos, Romney insisted that he is not “anti-immigrant” — as Gingrich has suggested — and nor does he have no compassion for those who come here illegally, particularly children who are brought to this country illegally by their parents.
He did not budge from his opposition, however, to allowing any illegal immigrants a new path to legal residency — as Gingrich supports for some longtime residents.
“You severely sanction employers who hire people who have not legal documentation and legal basis to be here. On that basis over time people will find it less attractive to be here, if they can’t find work here,” he said, explaining his position. “Some refer to that as self-deportation. and what it says is that I’m not in favor of going around the country, trying to round people up and put them in buses and take them across the border.”
He also did not back off his opposition to the Dream Act, which would allow some such children a path to citizenship through college.
“I’m not punishing her,” Romney said, when asked by Ramos why he would punish a 10-year-old girl from Peru who wants to go college and cannot afford it. “She can go to college. There’s no requirement that she goes to a college that provides an instate tuition break….There are many colleges in the United States and there are some that are relatively inexpensive. One can go to a college that’s not as expensive as others.
I’m not sure what the price is here in Miami-Dade, but my guess is it’s not terribly exorbitant.”
Those comments injected a touch of awkwardness into the exchange, as they came not long after Romney faced pointed questions from Ramos about his own personal wealth.
“How much money do you have?” Ramos asked him point blank.
“You tell me, and I’ll tell you,” Romney at first joked, before acknowledging that as a presidential candidate, he was required months ago to disclose information about his finances.
“I think the estimate in there is a pretty wide range, it’s been widely reported. My net worth is within that number,” Romney said.
When Ramos pressed him again, he acknowledged: “It’s between 150 and about 200 and some odd million dollars. I think that’s what the estimates are.”
While the figures have been widely reported — Romney reported in his August financial disclosure that his net worth is between $190 and $250 million — but it’s unusual to hear Romney himself peg his personal fortune. He went on to note that he didn’t inherit money from his parents but instead earned it through his own business success.
He also defended his tax rate — less than 15 percent — a low rate possible because most of his money in the last two years came through investments, which are taxed at a lower rate than wages.
“One of the reasons that we have a lower tax rate on capital gains, is that capital gains are also being taxed at the corporate level, so as businesses earn profits, that’s being taxed at 35 percent,” he said, before pivoting to an explanation of his own tax plan, under which those who make less than $200,000 would pay no taxes on their own investments.