GOP Candidates Vie For Cuban-American Vote

Two Republican presidential candidates — former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — appeared Wednesday at a forum sponsored by Univision and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Also Wednesday, prominent Latino politicians, including Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, called on Gingrich to take down a new radio ad that calls Romney "anti-immigrant." The Gingrich campaign complied and pulled the ad. Melissa Block talks with NPR's Greg Allen in Miami.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Miami today, the campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney traded attacks, both in English and Spanish. Both men appeared separately in a candidates' forum on the Spanish-language network Univision, and both went on the air in Miami with attack ads on Spanish-language radio.

NPR's Greg Allen is in Miami. He's been following all this. And, Greg, you have these two candidates today in Miami fighting for the same thing, and that's the powerful Cuban-American vote in Florida.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: That's right, Melissa. They both were here, and they both also delivered addresses on Latin America while they were here. Mitt Romney's address was downtown in Miami at the Freedom Tower, which is the old customs building which became a building of some prominence and significance of Cuban-Americans who immigrated her in the '60s. But it's all a reminder of how important the Cuban-American vote is, especially in Republican primaries in Florida.

Hispanics represent about 11 percent of the Republican registered voters here. Two-thirds of that group - the 11 percent - live in South Florida, just in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties alone. So, you know, that - it's a big battle. Mitt Romney's been up with Spanish-language campaign ads for some time. Newt Gingrich just started. And today, Gingrich launched a tough attack ad against Romney on Spanish-language radio.

BLOCK: And we have that Newt Gingrich ad here. Why don't we hear a bit of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWT GINGRICH'S POLITICAL AD)

FIDEL CASTRO: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken) Mitt Romney.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Mitt Romney (foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: So what we're hearing there, Greg, I gather that's Fidel Castro talking at the top, and then the narrator comparing Mitt Romney to a Kennedy.

ALLEN: Right. It's not...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: Yeah, as we listen to it, it's not clear which Kennedy it is. It doesn't say, you know, of course, Ted Kennedy being the liberal from Massachusetts. But John F. Kennedy also was a person with some history here. There are a lot of people in the Cuban-American community have never forgiven him for the Bay of Pigs. So it's not clear, but I don't think it matters, really.

That catline of Castro saying Fatherland or Death, the ad then goes on to say Mitt Romney has said something very similar. And then it also goes on, the ad, to call Mitt Romney anti-immigrant. It's all pretty raw, even here in Miami.

Gingrich was on that Univision show today, that candidate forum, and anchor Jorge Ramos asked him about it.

JORGE RAMOS: You call him anti-immigrant...

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, he certainly shows no concern for the humanity of people who are already here. I mean, I just think the idea of wanting to deport grandmothers and grandfathers is a sufficient level of inhumanity. First of all, it's never going to happen.

ALLEN: And you know, it all kind o ratcheted it up today. A number of elected Hispanic leaders wrote Gingrich an open letter. They called the ad untrue, offensive and unbecoming of a candidate for the Republican nomination. And one of those signing the letter was Florida Senator Marco Rubio, very popular down here. He's so far has stayed neutral in the race. So by the end of the day, the Gingrich campaign said they would take the ad down.

BLOCK: Hmm. Well, in the ad wars, Mitt Romney also launched his own Spanish language attack ad against Newt Gingrich today.

ALLEN: That's true. And this one attacks Gingrich for his ethics violations as House speaker - things we've heard before - his work for Freddie Mac, and as the ad says, also for calling Spanish a language of the ghetto.

Gingrich, when he was on Univision today, was asked about it by Jorge Ramos. He said he was just making a point about immigrants needing to learn English if they're going to succeed in America. In that same interview, he laughed at Romney's comments in Tuesday's debate that, you know, when faced with tough immigration laws, illegal immigrants may choose to, as he called it, self-deport. Gingrich called that an Obama-level fantasy. And on Univision, when he was on later, then Romney was asked about it and defended it.

MITT ROMNEY: On that basis over time, people will find it less attracted to be here if they can't find work here. Some refer to that as self-deportation. And what it says is, I'm not in favor of going around the country trying to round people up and put them in buses and take them across the border.

BLOCK: Well, Greg, after all this back and forth and these attacks, is there a sign of how these two candidates are doing in the Cuban-American community there in Florida?

ALLEN: Well, we had a poll today from Univision which shows Romney with a big lead over Newt Gingrich in the Hispanic community, both here in Florida and also nationally. That poll, however, spans some time that was before Gingrich's win in South Carolina, so it's really not clear how representative it is right now.

Romney does--though have the support of nearly every prominent Cuban-American Republican elected official in South Florida, with the exception of Rubio, as I mentioned, and that all carries a lot of weight down here in the community.

Gingrich is here campaigning, trying to cut into that support, but he appears to be the only one who's doing so. Ron Paul, as you know, is skipping Florida. Rick Santorum was supposed to be here today at that candidate forum, but cancelled at the last minute because of scheduling conflicts.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Greg Allen in Miami. Greg, thanks so much.

ALLEN: You're welcome.

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