GOP rivals pursue Hispanic voters

Mitt Romney addresses the Hispanic Leadership Network's luncheon in Miami. "We are not anti-immigrant," he said.
Mitt Romney addresses the Hispanic Leadership Network's luncheon in Miami. "We are not anti-immigrant," he said. (CHARLES DHARAPAK / Associated Press)

In Florida, candidates discuss immigration. A new poll shows Romney with a solid lead.

Posted: January 28, 2012

MIAMI - The Republican presidential rivals courted influential Hispanic voters in South Florida on Friday with promises to improve immigration laws and focus on Latin America, as a new poll suggested that Mitt Romney is regaining his edge in the first mega-state to deliver a decision.

A survey by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University - conducted just days ahead of Tuesday's primary voting - found Romney leading the once-surging Newt Gingrich by 38 percent to 29 percent in what has become a two-man race, though former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum picked up the endorsement of the Latin Builders Association after he and Gingrich spoke to the group.

Romney and Gingrich appeared hours apart before a crowd at the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network, where Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) preceded them onstage. They largely refrained from the sharp attacks that have defined the campaign, though they continued to disagree on what to do with the estimated 11 million people who live in the United States illegally.

Without mentioning a Gingrich attack ad that the campaign withdrew after complaints from Rubio, Romney sought to defend himself from the ad's accusation that he was "anti-immigrant."

"We are not anti-immigrant. We are not anti-immigration," said Romney, who during Thursday night's debate had called the suggestion "repulsive" as he aggressively hit back at Gingrich. "We are the pro-immigration, pro-legality, pro-citizenship nation."

He and Gingrich clashed sharply at the debate, but Romney appeared Friday to be riding a wave from his pull-no-punches performance, and he seemed relaxed and jovial before the Hispanic group, which gave him sustained rounds of applause and a standing ovation when he pledged to "help Cuba become free."

He also said he would appoint a presidential envoy responsible for democracy and freedom in Latin America.

He defended his call for those who are in the United States illegally to be given a temporary status and then return to their home countries to apply for citizenship.

"Other people call that self-deportation," he said, adding, "We're not going to go out and round up people in buses and send them home."

Gingrich sought to draw a line of distinction, saying he had a "big disagreement" with Romney. Gingrich, who had mocked Romney's mention of "self-deportation" at Monday's debate in Tampa, said that "a very significant number" of "young, unattached" undocumented immigrants would go back to their countries and apply for a guest-worker program under Romney's proposal.

"Self-deportation in fact works for those groups," he acknowledged, but not for everyone. "The idea that a grandmother is not going to be supported, the idea that she's going to self-deport.. . . This is not a solution."

With Hispanics one of the fastest-growing voting blocs, some Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have cautioned against harsh anti-immigration rhetoric. Gingrich acknowledged that he didn't think sweeping immigration change was possible, given the failures of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.

Such legislation, he said, would face "too many enemies."

Romney picked up the endorsement Friday of Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, a key asset in reaching Puerto Rican Republicans in Central Florida.

He told the Hispanic Leadership Network hours before the endorsement that he hoped Puerto Ricans would follow Fortuno's lead and vote for statehood for the island.

Santorum, along with his traditional stump-speech pledges to lower taxes and roll back Obama regulations, told the story of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in Pennsylvania coal mines until he was 72.

"Those were the hands that dug freedom for me in America," he said, praising Miami's Cuban American community for its "passion for freedom."

Santorum then vowed to take a hard line against any alliance between Iran and Venezuela, which he described as "Cuba Part B." Although he's lagging in the polls, Santorum's speech won over the builders' board.

"We are most interested in supporting a candidate that is going to reinvigorate the economy," said Bernie Navarro, the Latin Builders Association's president.

Romney pursued a two-track strategy Friday. While he engaged President Obama over policy and refrained from sharp criticism of his rivals, surrogates went on the attack.

Florida's Bush blasted Gingrich for criticizing Romney's hiring of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's staffers, calling the criticism "ridiculous." Crist left the GOP to run as an independent against Rubio in 2010. Rubio won.

"That's not a serious accusation," Bush told National Review Online about Gingrich's allegations. "Candidates win elections. I'm not a big Charlie Crist fan, as you recall, but these guys shouldn't have that moniker attached to them, as if Gov. Romney is part of some evil plot."

The latest Quinnipiac poll suggests that Romney, who has more money than Gingrich and has been able to hammer him in a series of attack ads, is opening up a considerable lead over Gingrich.

The poll, conducted Tuesday through Thursday among 580 likely Republican primary voters, had Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 14 percent, followed by Santorum at 12 percent. It has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.

Glenn Is Skeptical On Moon Colony

Newt Gingrich's goal to establish a permanent moon base if elected president would be costly and shouldn't be the space program's focus, said John Glenn, the first U.S. astronaut to orbit Earth.

"Sometime we'll go to the moon, but I think to have a lunar colony by 2020 is optimistic to say the least," Glenn said from Columbus, Ohio.

Glenn, 90, voiced doubt that the cost of a permanent base - and especially of maintaining a colony - had been thought out in the midst of the political season. He called ex-President George W. Bush's decision to end the space shuttle program "a drastic mistake" and said the U.S. should focus on the boosters needed to reach the space station.

The Democratic former Ohio senator made the comments in an interview about the 50th anniversary of his Friendship 7 orbital flight on Feb. 20, 1962.

- Bloomberg News

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