GOP Rivals Vie For Florida's Spanish-Speaking Vote

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Cuban-Americans are an important part of the Republican presidential electorate in Florida. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have reached out to these voters in Spanish-language TV and radio ads. Romney, in particular, has racked up many endorsements from prominent Cuban-American political figures.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. A brutal Republican presidential race hinges, for now, on the Florida primary. And the results in that primary depend, in part, on Cuban-American voters.

INSKEEP: Their story gives them a special place in American political life, and this week it's brought them the fervent attention of both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For politicians running for statewide or national office, there are many Floridas. There's the socially conservative Panhandle; the large and important I-4 Corridor;the senior citizen vote; and, of course, South Florida's Cuban-Americans.


ALLEN: At La Carada(ph) restaurant in Miami's Westchester community, there's usually a group talking politics at its outdoor coffee bar. Where I asked Manny Nobrigas(ph) whom he was supporting in the primary, he said he was still deciding.

MANNY NOBRIGAS: I don't know. You know, depending, you know - my vote is for Romney, but depending, you know, what's going to happen now in Florida.

ALLEN: So you're leaning toward Romney - but you're looking at Gingrich, it sounds like.

NOBRIGAS: Yeah. He - look like he got the answers.


ALLEN: Behind the counter, waitresses are serving up tiny cups of strong, sweet, Cuban coffee. Customer Julio Garcia says he already cast his early vote for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum because he likes his conservative values. But in the Cuban-American community, he suspects he's in the minority.

JULIO GARCIA: Now, unfortunately, in the Cuban community, many times they put the issue of Cuba before national issues. And so I don't go by what they say, so much as to what I know the candidates stand for and what they actually believe in, and live.

ALLEN: All of the three candidates campaigning in Florida this week - Romney, Gingrich and Santorum - take a hard line on Cuba. But Romney's the one with the inside track on the Cuban-American vote. A poll commissioned by ABC and the Spanish-language Univision Network shows Romney 26 points ahead of Gingrich in Florida's Latino community. Romney's had ads up here, both in English and Spanish, for weeks. He's also locked up endorsements from many respected Cuban-American leaders.

Yesterday, Gingrich worked hard to cut into that support. Interviewed in Miami on Univision, he criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to encourage a Cuba equivalent of the Arab Spring.


NEWT GINGRICH: I don't see why Cuba should be sacrosanct, and we should say oh, don't do anything to hurt the - you know, we're very prepared to back people in Libya; we may end up backing people in Syria. But now, Cuba - hands off Cuba. That's baloney. The people of Cuba deserve freedom.


ALLEN: Gingrich has taken the battle for the Cuban-American vote directly to Mitt Romney, in the form of a Spanish-language radio ad.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: (Foreign language spoken)

ALLEN: It's an ad that begins with a clip of Fidel Castro, and it accuses Romney of being anti-immigrant.

Yesterday, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a respected Cuban-American who so far has stayed neutral in the race, joined in the criticism of the ad, calling it inaccurate, inflammatory and something that doesn't belong in the campaign. Gingrich agreed to take it down, but not before being asked to defend it by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.


JORGE RAMOS: You call him anti-immigrant in one ad.

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

ALLEN: Romney was asked how he felt about being called anti-immigrant later in the day, when he appeared on Univision.


MITT ROMNEY: Yeah, very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet; it's just inappropriate. There are differences between candidates on important issues, but we don't attack each other with those kind of terrible terms.

ALLEN: That regret didn't stop Romney from launching his own negative Spanish-language radio ad, targeting Gingrich.



ALLEN: It attacks Gingrich for, as the ad claims, calling Spanish a language of the ghetto. Gingrich says he was just making a point about immigrants needing to learn English, to succeed in America. But Romney's not backing down from his ad.


ROMNEY: (Spanish spoken) Soy Mitt Romney. Estoy postulado para presidente ...

ALLEN: Both men will be back in Miami Friday, joined by Santorum at a Hispanic leadership forum organized by Rubio, with another guest popular among Cuban-American Republicans - former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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