DORAL, Fla. — Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney pitched their ideas for reforming immigration law and pushing democracy into Cuba and across Latin America as the Republican presidential candidates vied for Hispanic votes Friday, entering the final, frenzied weekend before Florida’s primary.
“We are not anti-immigrant, we are not anti-immigration” Romney said to applause, suggesting the news media had unfairly tarnished his party’s reputation among Hispanics. His refrain also echoed a theme that was at the heart of one of several clashes with Gingrich at Thursday night’s debate in Jacksonville.
Romney followed Gingrich in speeches before hundreds of Hispanic leaders meeting near Miami, and each avoided criticizing his closest rival in what now looks like a two-man race for the nomination.
Immigration is a flashpoint issue in Florida for the GOP candidates, who are trying to strike a balance between sounding compassionate and firm about stemming the tide of illegal workers. The state has roughly 1.5 million Hispanic voters.
Gingrich called for a measured approach to revising the nation’s immigration laws, “because any bill you write that is comprehensive has too many enemies.” The former House speaker says he wants stricter border control, faster deportation proceedings and a guest worker program for certain immigrants.
Gingrich called for a U.S.-supported “Cuban spring” uprising against the long-standing communist regime.
If elected, Gingrich said, he would bring to bear “the moral force of an American president who is serious about intending to free the people of Cuba, and willingness to intimidate those who are the oppressors and say to them, ‘You will be held accountable.’”
Romney said the United States needs to work harder to promote democracy across Latin America and elsewhere. He compared it to selling soda: “We convince people around the world to buy a brown, caramel-colored water called Coca-Cola and to pay like a half day’s wage for it. And they’ll buy it. It’s unbelievable. We’re able to convince people of things that sometimes you scratch your head. … And yet democracy, we don’t sell that so well. ”
Romney also pledged to appoint a Latin American envoy and to create a task force to focus on drug trafficking and other Latin American troubles.
Gingrich said he would support a Puerto Rican referendum on whether it should be granted statehood.
Their remarks were mild in comparison to their debate clash sparked by immigration issues.
Gingrich responded to a question Thursday night by saying Romney was the most anti-immigrant of all four contenders on stage. “That’s simply inexcusable,” the former Massachusetts governor responded.
Gingrich fired back that Romney misled voters by running an ad accusing the former House speaker of once referring to Spanish as “the language of the ghetto.” Gingrich said he was referring to a multitude of languages, not just Spanish.
Romney initially said of the ad, “I doubt it’s mine,” but moderator Wolf Blitzer pointed out that Romney, at the ad’s conclusion, says he approved the message.
Gingrich rushed out an ad Friday using debate footage that raised questions about Romney’s credibility, including his reluctance to own up to the “ghetto” commercial. “If we can’t trust Romney in a debate, how can we trust him in the White House,” a narrator says in the Gingrich ad.
The debate was the 19th since the race for the Republican nomination began last year, and came five days before the Florida primary on Tuesday. Opinion polls show a close race, with a slight advantage for Romney. Two other contenders, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, were far behind.
Paul has already made clear his intention to skip Florida in favor of smaller, less-expensive states. On Friday, he began a two-day stretch of campaigning in snowy Maine.
Santorum, who had been campaigning aggressively here, conceded that he’s better off sitting at his kitchen table Saturday doing his taxes instead of campaigning in a state where he can’t keep up with the GOP front-runners.
Outside advisers were urging him to pack up in Florida completely and not spend another minute in a state where he is cruising toward a third straight loss.
The cash-strapped Santorum said he’ll make a handful of Florida campaign stops but will finish Friday with his family in Pennsylvania, where he’ll spend all day Saturday. He planned to return to Florida for campaign events on Sunday.