Republicans trade barbs ahead of Florida
Jacksonville - Republican White House hopefuls Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich
traded barbs over immigration and character on the eve of a debate on Thursday
before Florida's ultra-competitive primary.
The frontrunners - locked in a virtual tie in the polls - spent Wednesday
courting Latino voters and sniping at each other as they battled for the chance
to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November election.
A new CNN poll suggested it was too close to call ahead of next Tuesday's
primary, with former Massachusetts governor Romney at 36% and former House
speaker Gingrich at 34% after a series of wild swings.
Trailing them were former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum with 11% and
Texas congressman Ron Paul on 9%.
Gingrich came out of the blocks deriding Romney for his suggestion that
tough government measures could force illegal immigrants to leave the country
"For Romney to believe that somebody's grandmother is going to be so
cut off that she is going to self-deport, I mean this... is an Obama-level
fantasy," he told an event cosponsored by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Immigration has been a politically fraught subject for both men.
Gingrich has been chastised by conservatives who believe he has been too
soft on immigration. Romney meanwhile has taken heat from the Latino community
for vowing to veto a popular law that would offer permanent residency to high
school graduates and those who serve in the military.
More than 450 000 Hispanics in Florida identify themselves as Republicans,
making them a crucial demographic in the January 31 party primary, the latest
in a series of state contests to decide the nomination.
State-wide there are 1.4 million registered Hispanic voters, according to
Florida election officials, making it key voting bloc in November.
Sensing a vote winner, Gingrich said he would consider popular Cuban
American Florida Senator Marco Rubio as vice president if he won his party's
And both candidates tried to out-do each other in toughness on Cuba.
With an eye on the state's one million Cuban Americans, both vowed to support
a Cuban uprising should it occur while they are in the White House.
"If there was a genuine legitimate uprising, we would, of course, be on
the side of the people," Gingrich told Spanish-language network Univision.
"In that sense I don't see why Cuba should be sacrosanct... 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. People of Cuba deserve freedom."
Romney, speaking at the Freedom Tower, a memorial to Cuban immigration to
the United States, said that Obama "does not understand that by helping
Castro, he is not helping the people of Cuba; he is hurting them".
Romney said that if he were president he would punish foreign companies
doing business in Cuba and "not give Castro gifts".
Obama has eased some travel and other restrictions since 2009 but has kept
the decades-old US embargo in place, saying he is only willing to change the
longstanding policy if Cuba's communist regime embarks on democratic reforms.
A poll released on Wednesday found that Hispanics in Florida prefer Romney
to Gingrich, but that Obama has the edge among the key ethnic group nationally.
Among Latinos who plan to vote in the Republican primary, the poll found
Romney had a 15-point advantage over Gingrich, 35 to 20%.
Supporters of each candidate have taken to Florida's nearly one dozen
television markets to continue the war of words over the other's character.
A pro-Romney television spot insisted Gingrich is overplaying his links to
former president Ronald Reagan, who is beloved by conservatives.
"From debates, you’d think Newt Gingrich was Ronald Reagan's vice
president," the narrator says, before concluding: "On leadership and
character, Gingrich is no Ronald Reagan."
It appeared to be an attempt to reprise the stunningly effective takedown
from the 1988 vice-presidential debate.
Then Lloyd Bentsen ridiculed Dan Quayle's claim to hold the mantle of John F
Kennedy, with the comment that has become part of American popular culture:
"Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."