Republicans trade barbs ahead of Florida

2012-01-26 11:01

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 through "self-deportation".

"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 and Univision.

Crucial demographic

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 nomination.

And both candidates tried to out-do each other in toughness on Cuba.

Obama bashing

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.

Reagan connection

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."


Read more on:    newt gingrich  |  barack obama  |  mitt romney  |  us  |  us elections 2012

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