Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and GOP Woo Latino Vote in Florida

Gingrich and Romney are waging an ugly fight over Florida’s key Latino vote, pounding each other on immigration. Lois Romano reports.

Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a prominent Cuban American politician in Florida, had this to say in an interview about Mitt Romney’s position on immigration: “It’s hardline and harsh. I disagree with him.”

And he’s a Romney supporter. Imagine what his opponents say.

The fight for the soul of the influential Latino community in Florida has gotten ugly, with charges of pandering, defamation, and heartlessness flying back and forth between Romney and his main rival for the GOP nomination, Newt Gingrich. The state’s Latino population accounts for about 13 percent of registered voters here, well worth the fight. The race is currently a dead heat.

Both candidates have been airing Spanish-speaking radio ads, aggressively courting Latino political leaders, and flexing muscle about who is better suited to depose Cuban patriarch Fidel Castro and the government led by his brother, Raul Castro. Both GOP contenders appeared separately Wednesday at a candidates’ forum hosted by the Spanish-language Univision network in Miami, belittling each other’s commitment to the community.

“He certainly shows no concern for the humanity of [the immigrants] who are already here,” Gingrich charged.

“I recognize that it’s very tempting to come to an audience like this and to pander…and to say what you hope people will want to hear,” Romney shot back a few hours later. “But frankly I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate.”

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio—who has stayed neutral—also jumped into the fray on Wednesday, forcing Gingrich to pull down a television ad that accused Romney of being anti-immigrant. “It’s inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn’t belong in this campaign,” Rubio told the Miami Herald.

Even Fidel Castro decided to get his two cents in, with an editorial in the Cuban state media. He called the Republican candidates “the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been.”

The issues at stake for the Cuban and larger Latino communities in Florida are complex and varied: the dismal housing market in Florida which has greatly affected Latinos, immigration reform, and the powerful Cuban population’s long-standing interest in bringing down the Castro regime.

With regard to Castro, the opponents are on the same page. Romney predicted that when he’s president “Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet.” Gingrich faulted the Obama administration for not taking a harder line against Castro. “I don’t think it occurs to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a Cuban spring,” said Gingrich.

Gingrich has managed to convey a softer approach on immigration, calling for leniency for the undocumented grandmother who has raised her children in this country, and supporting a path to citizenship for anyone who joins the U.S. military. “If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out,” Gingrich has said.

Gingrich ridiculed Romney on Wednesday for advocating “self-deportation,” a policy that would bar immigrants from working so that they would be forced to return home. Gingrich laughed out loud at the notion during an interview with Univision.

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“For Romney to believe somebody’s grandmother will be so cut off she’s going to self-deport, I mean this is an Obama-level fantasy,” Gingrich said.

But despite his compassionate talk, Gingrich was pressed by journalist Jorge Ramos to expound on how he would deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. Gingrich said he was for “half“ of the DREAM Act—a proposal languishing in Congress that would offer selected immigrants a chance for residency and citizenship. “I am for the part that says if you are in the United States, even if your parents brought you illegally, if you are here, you have the same right to sign up in the military and earn citizenship,” said Gingrich.

Romney already has angered Latino voters by vowing that if president he would veto the Dream Act. It’s not a good place to be standing in this state. According to a national poll by the Pew Hispanic Center, nine out of 10 Latino registered voters support the DREAM Act, and one-third say issues revolving around immigration are “extremely important to them personally.”

Activists were further infuriated when Romney accepted the endorsement of Kris Kobach, the controversial Kansas secretary of state who is considered the architect of the harsh state immigration laws around the country.

At a recent Romney campaign event, Diaz-Balart was confronted by an angry college student in the audience upset by his support for Romney. “You have been such a friend to us, I just don’t understand,” the student said.

Nonetheless, Romney has the support of many prominent Cuban-American Republican politicians in the state. Diaz-Belart said he believes that ultimately the high unemployment rate and the electability issue will be the deciding factors in the Cuban and broader Latino community, giving Romney the advantage.

The other remaining candidates in the race—Rick Santorum and Ron Paul—have not had much of a profile in the state this week.

Regardless of who wins Tuesday’s GOP primary, the fight starts anew in November. According to a new ABC News/Univision poll, Latino voters favor President Obama over any of the Republican hopefuls. In Florida, Latinos prefer Obama to Romney 50 to 40 percent, and Obama over Gingrich, 52 to 38 percent.