[credit provider=”Gage Skidmore | Flickr” url=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/gageskidmore/5844390932/”]
This post originally appeared at Real Clear Politics. Targeting specific coalitions wasn’t much in vogue in the Republican primary race until the campaigns came to the Sunshine State. Now, a battle is raging for the Latino vote in south Florida.
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney each visited here Wednesday to sit for interviews with Univision, the largest Spanish-language TV network in the United States, and also to offer remarks elsewhere on Latin American issues. But some personal spats loomed larger than what may separate the two candidates on the salient Hispanic issues.
Despite having a more conservative stance than Gingrich on immigration policy, Romney is outpolling him with Latino voters in Florida, according to a new Univision/ABC News poll. Pollsters surveyed 517 registered Hispanic voters in the state, and 35 per cent said they would vote for Romney in the primary compared to 20 per cent for Gingrich. (Rick Santorum and Ron Paul each registered in single digits.) The poll was conducted Tuesday and has a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gingrich’s team has been attacking Romney as “anti-immigrant,” which it did in a Spanish-language radio ad that campaign representatives subsequently pulled from the airwaves after complaints from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. (A Cuban-American darling of the Tea Party, Rubio has said he will not back a candidate in the intra-party fight.) After first refusing, the campaign complied in deference to the star freshman of the Senate.
Miami-based Univision anchor Jorge Ramos opened his interview with Romney by drawing on comments Gingrich made in his interview earlier in the day, and specifically the charges made against Romney in the radio ad.
“It’s very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet,” Romney said, adding later, “I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate, and I think that was a mistake on his part.”
Romney reiterated his oft-repeated talking point that he “loves” legal immigration, and added, “Immigrants form more businesses than do domestic-born Americans.”
For his part, Gingrich slammed the concept of “self-deportation” — which Romney advocated during Monday’s debate in Tampa — as “fantasy,” only to be criticised by Romney surrogates for having once touted the very same idea himself.
“What’s shocking is . . . that his campaign has also talked about self-deportation, so he needs to maybe reconcile with himself where he stands,” said Florida Rep. Connie Mack, a Romney supporter. “His campaign has put out self-deportation, so if it’s ‘fantasy,’ then why would he propose fantasy? It doesn’t make sense.”
Romney allies dug up a December 2010 interview with conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, who floated self-deportation as an outcome of more rigid immigration laws, and Gingrich agreed.
Added Dave Gorak, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Midwest Coalition to Reduce Immigration: “Gingrich’s calling Romney’s support for ‘self-deportation’ a ‘fantasy’ is disingenuous at best.” He added, “It’s a simple concept that’s been advocated for years and is based on enforcement of our immigration laws that includes requiring employers to use the federal E-Verify program. In Arizona, for example, the illegal population has declined 17 per cent since that state took steps to protect American workers. In areas where E-Verify is mandatory, it is not a ‘fantasy’ that illegals are leaving voluntarily.”
But whether Romney scores a point on that aspect of the issue or not, he still has a rift to fix with the Hispanic community, specifically over his promise to veto the DREAM Act if he were president. When Rick Perry was still a candidate, Romney clashed with him over Texas providing in-state college tuition to the children of illegal immigrants. Ramos pressed the former Massachusetts governor on the issue, saying that his stance would keep people from getting a higher education.
“There are many colleges in the United States, and many of them are relatively inexpensive,” Romney replied, citing Miami-Dade College, where the interview was being filmed, as an example. “My guess is it’s not terribly exorbitant.”
Ramos pointed out that Romney lags behind President Obama in recent polls of the Hispanic community and asked how he would close that gap. Ramos had earlier noted that Romney’s father and grandfather had lived in Mexico — and wondered if that made the candidate a Mexican-American. Laughing, Romney joked that he’d love Ramos to get that word out, especially in Florida. “Just wait,” he said. “When we get that quote out there of you saying I’m a Mexican-American, I’ll do a lot better.”
Approaches to border enforcement and deportation have caused candidates to rise and fall in primary races, and John McCain’s relatively moderate position on those matters posed a threat to his nomination fight in the last presidential campaign. But issues of importance to the Latino community go well beyond immigration, of course.
In a speech at Florida International University on Wednesday, Gingrich criticised the Obama administration for ignoring Latin America in its foreign policy, and he promised stronger support for the region.
“I don’t think it’s ever occurred to a single person in the White House to look south and propose a ‘Cuban Spring,’ ” Gingrich said, adding, “If [Hosni] Mubarak was bad, Castro is worse.” He also vowed to bring “every non-military tool . . . to bear on the Soviet empire” and promised that a new generation of dictators would not succeed the Castro brothers in Cuba.
Saying the president has bowed to Hugo Chavez, Gingrich promised to confront the Venezuelan president, calling him a “bitter, deep anti-American” and pointing out his alliance with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He vowed to keep Iranian bases out of the region, averting the potential “first overt violation of the Monroe Doctrine since the 1820s.”
Militarily, he said, “we need to dramatically strengthen the [U.S.] Southern Command. We need to recognise how important Latin America is, and we need to take Mexico, which for bizarre reasons is currently in the Northern Command . . . and we need to transfer it to the Southern Command . . . because nobody in the Northern Command has a clue why they have Mexico, and it doesn’t work very well.”
He continued, “This is our most populous neighbour. We have an enormous vested interest in helping the Mexican government win the war with the drug cartels. It is a tragedy the level of violence in Mexico. A lot of it is fuelled by American money, by Americans buying drugs. And in effect we are funding the war that we should ensure the government of Mexico wins.”
Here again, Romney surrogate Connie Mack popped Gingrich for his policy prescriptions.
“I thought the speech . . . was quite inept,” Mack said. “This is a guy that says he’s got bold ideas. The only new idea that he had was switching Mexico from Northern Command to Southern Command.”
Later in the afternoon, speaking at a Miami event sponsored by the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, Romney said that if he becomes president, “it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet.” He offered few specifics about his plans for the region, but borrowing from Gingrich’s comments during Monday’s debate, he said of Castro, “He’ll find a nether region more to his comfort.”
Both candidates lamented the lack of U.S. focus on Latin America as a place of economic interest, and they lambasted President Obama for delaying trade negotiations with countries in the region. “We must open relationships with other Latin American nations,” Romney said, adding that his experience in the private sector would help. He promised that his administration would include someone focused on strengthening economic prosperity in the area.
And asked during the Univision interview about some Puerto Ricans’ quest for statehood, Romney said, “My choice is to let them make their own choice.”
He also said he has the support of several current and former Republican members of Congress with strong ties to the Hispanic community here, including Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. But bringing Latino voters into the Republican fold in a general election will be no small feat, and the fight over them here shows just how important that bloc is to Romney and Gingrich.
For his part, Ron Paul isn’t even competing in Florida, and Rick Santorum decided late Tuesday to cancel his scheduled Wednesday interview with Univision. The network had tried repeatedly to schedule a debate for the GOP contenders, who said they would boycott such a forum over a dustup the network had with Rubio. Instead of a debate, Univision got two afternoon interviews with the two leading contenders for the nomination, each of whom is engaged in a personal war with the other.
This story was originally published by RealClearPolitics.