MIAMI — Former House speaker Newt Gingrich on Wednesday mocked as an “Obama-level fantasy” Mitt Romney’s plan to deal with illegal immigration by encouraging “self-deportation.”
Gingrich made the comment as he began a day of outreach to Florida’s Hispanic voters with an extensive interview on Spanish-language television and a speech at Florida International University in which he called for a more a forceful U.S. role in ending communist rule in Cuba, as well as an overhaul of U.S. economic policies toward all of Latin America.
In an interview with the Univision network, Gingrich said it was unrealistic for millions of illegal immigrants in the United States to voluntarily leave the country, as Romney, his chief rival for the Republican presidential nomination, suggested in a debate Monday ahead of Florida’s Jan. 31 primary. Gingrich, who upset the GOP race by decisively winning Saturday’s South Carolina primary, also used a question about the immigration issue to get in a few digs at the former Massachusetts governor over his wealth and tax returns.
“You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million income for no work to have some fantasy this far from reality,” Gingrich told Univision interviewer Jorge Ramos. “For Romney to believe that somebody’s grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self-deport, I mean this is an Obama-level fantasy.”
In a debate Monday, a moderator asked Romney how he would get illegal immigrants to go home without rounding up and deporting them, which he has said he does not want to do.
“Well, the answer is self-deportation,” he responded. He said this would happen when “people decide that they could do better by going home because they can’t find work here because they don’t have legal documentation to allow them to work here.”
After Gingrich ridiculed the idea Wednesday, Romney’s campaign highlighted previous comments by Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond, who said the vast majority of illegal immigrants would likely “self-deport” under Gringrich’s immigration plan, which Hammond said would allow only a small percentage of them to remain in the United States.
Romney himself on Wednesday accused Gingrich of pandering to Florida’s Latino voters by mocking Romney’s stance on immigration.
“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’s Ramos. “But frankly, I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate.”
The two campaigns also sparred Wednesday over a Gingrich political ad that called Romney “anti-immigrant.” The ad, which aired on Spanish-language radio, was denounced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a tea party favorite who has remained neutral in the primary campaign.
Romney’s Hispanic leadership team, which includes former senator Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), called the ad “untrue, offensive and unbecoming” and demanded that Gingrich pull it. Hammond, the Gingrich spokesman, denied reports that the campaign had acceded to the demand, saying that the ad was part of a rotating series and merely went out of rotation.
Romney is slated to appear Wednesday afternoon at the same Univision candidate forum where Gingrich spoke in the morning. Later, Romney was scheduled to address the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Miami. Earlier, he offered a scathing review of President Obama’s State of the Union address in a speech at a factory in Tampa.
On the campaign trail in Florida, Gingrich and Romney sought to appeal to Latinos — a difficult task nationwide for GOP candidates. According to a new ABC News/Univision poll, Latino voters favor Obama over all the Republican hopefuls by a wide margin.
In Florida, Latinos prefer Obama over Romney 50 percent to 40 percent in a hypothetical head-to-head general election contest, according to the poll. In a matchup against Gingrich, the poll shows the margin to be even wider, with 52 percent supporting the president to 38 percent for the former speaker.
About one in 10 likely voters in the closed Florida GOP primary is Latino, and 35 percent of them say they would vote for Romney, while only 20 percent support Gingrich and 21 percent are undecided, according to the poll.
Gingrich appealed to Hispanic voters in an effort to build on the momentum of his win in South Carolina. Demonstrating a level of comfort with his heavily Hispanic audiences that Romney is not known for, Gingrich spoke a few halting phrases of Spanish in his 30-minute interview with Univision, and he laughed and drew applause from the studio audience of Miami Dade College and members of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Later, in a more formal address at Florida International University, Gingrich became choked up as he thanked violinist Luis Haza, who fled Cuba as a child, for his rendition of the National Anthem at the start of the event.
“One of the great joys that Callista and I have is he is actually teaching our granddaughter,” Gingrich said, his voice cracking as the audience broke into applause. Citing Haza’s “passion” in opposing the long rule of Fidel Castro, Gingrich expressed his “determination to free Cuba and to help the people of Cuba be free.”
At both events, Gingrich said the United States has been remiss in not taking a more forceful stand against Castro’s Cuba.
“I find it fascinating that Obama is intrigued with Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, but doesn’t quite notice Cuba,” Gingrich said. “Now I would just argue if there was a genuine legitimate uprising, we would of course be on the side of the people and we should be prepared to be on the side of the people. But in that sense, I don’t see why Cuba should be sacrosanct. We’re very prepared to back people in Libya. We may end up backing people in Syria. Now Cuba, hands off Cuba. That’s baloney. The people of Cuba deserve freedom.”
Gingrich said the United States should apply to Cuba the model of then-president Ronald Reagan, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the late Pope John Paul II in breaking up the Soviet empire.
“They went at it psychologically. They went at it economically. They went at it diplomatically. They went at it with covert operations. They maximized the growth of Solidarity. They provided tools. This was the olden days, so for students, it will seem quaint, but they provided fax machines and other devices. You want to say to the entire younger generation of the dictatorship: ‘You have no future propping up the dictatorship. You have a wonderful future if you’re willing to become a democracy.’ ”
Gingrich also called for a rewrite of U.S. policy toward Haiti, where, he said, 80 years of humanitarian assistance have done little to improve the “painful lives” of the impoverished nation’s people. He called for a comprehensive economic plan toward Latin America, including tax credits in lieu of foreign aid and a revamp of U.S. policy toward Mexico to end the dominance of drug cartels there.
“We should consciously have a program that says, ‘We want everyday Latin Americans to have a better future,’ ” he said. “Not the oligarchies, not the gangs, but normal everyday people.”
Gingrich also called for a watchful eye over the alliance between Iran and Venezuela, which he suggested could lead to an attempt by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to establish a military presence in the Western Hemisphere.
And he repeated his position on reforming illegal immigration, saying he likes “half the Dream Act” but not the other half — meaning he would support a path to citizenship for children brought into the United States if they served in the U.S. military. He reiterated his belief that illegal immigrants who have been in this country for many years should be allowed to pursue legal resident status if not outright citizenship, and that others should be encouraged to apply for guest-worker status in a system he would revamp.
Gingrich took some tough questions from Ramos, the Univision anchor, who asked him to defend his attacks on then-president Bill Clinton over his marital infidelity when Gingrich was in the midst of his own extramarital affair. Gingrich said his critique of Clinton was about the former president’s perjury — not the cheating.
The spirited exchange continued when Ramos pressed him and Gingrich replied: “Okay, there is someplace there where there’s a mental synapse missing. I didn’t do the same thing. I never lied under oath, I have never committed perjury, I have never been involved in a felony — he was. I mean, I had one of his closest friends come to see me and said to me, ‘You know, lots of people have done what he did,’ and I said, ‘That’s right, but they didn’t lie under oath about it.’ And the guy looked at me and said ‘Well, you’re right, that’s a felony, and that’s a real problem.’ ”
Ramos also asked Gingrich to revisit the issue of his ex-wife, Marianne Gingrich, who said in an interview with ABC last week that her ex-husband had asked for an “open marriage” in the 1990s.
Gingrich was received warmly by his audiences, several of whom said in interviews that they connect more easily with the former House speaker than with Romney.
“Romney is a smart guy,” said Manuel Garcia, 75, who moved to the United States from Cuba a half-century ago and is retired from the real estate business. “He has proven that he has a lot of very good entrepreneurial activities, and he was very profitable. He has the ability to handle the economy. But it looks to me that he doesn’t have the aggressivity that Gingrich has. We need someone to beat Obama.”
Gingrich also may have found a new word to describe Romney: “postalita,” which one Cuban American called the former Massachusetts governor while waiting for Gingrich to begin speaking. The Spanish word means baseball trading card, but in some circles, “postalita” has come to mean a ballplayer who looks the part but doesn’t play very well. That is how David Garcia, a 27-year-old bodyguard from Miami, said he views Romney.
“He’s just a figurine,” Garcia said, “just like Obama. You see those baseball players? They look the part, but they’re the worst ones. They got the sunglasses, they got the batting gloves, they’re all clean — but you know what? They’re sitting on the bench. They can’t play.”
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, meanwhile, Obama defended his record on the economy in a campaign-style speech a day after delivering his third State of the Union address.
“Today, three years after the worst economic storm in three generations, we are making progress,” he said. “Our businesses have created more than 3 million jobs over the last 22 months. ... Our economy is getting stronger. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s getting stronger, and we’ve come way too far to turn back now.”
Taking aim at Republicans generally, Obama added: “There are people in Washington who seem to have collective amnesia. They seem to have forgotten how we got into this mess. They want to go back to the very same policies that got us into it.”
He vowed, “We’re not going to go back to an economy weakened by outsourcing and bad debt and phony financial profits.”
Staff writer William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.