DORAL, Fla. -- After weeks of intensifying criticism over inflammatory campaign rhetoric about immigration -- and with just days to go before Florida's winner-take-all primary -- the front-runners in the Republican race are rapidly recasting their Latino strategies.
Mitt Romney is backing off from his hard-line positions on immigration. Newt Gingrich is backing off on calling Romney "anti-immigrant."
And prominent Republican Party members including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio are calling on the candidates and the party as a whole to rethink how they address the immigration issue.
"We must admit there are those among us that have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable and inexcusable. And we must admit, myself included, that sometimes we've been too slow to condemn that language for what it is," Rubio, a Tea Party favorite considered a potential pick for vice president, said Friday in a speech before the Hispanic Leadership Network.
"I challenge the Republican nominees, and all Republicans, to not just be the anti-illegal immigration party," he continued. "That's not who we are and that's not who we should be. We should be the pro-legal immigration party."
He got rousing applause and cheers from the mostly Hispanic, almost exclusively conservative, and extremely influential South Florida audience.
Minutes later, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney used almost the exact words -- and got nearly the same response.
"We are not anti-immigrant," he said. "We are not anti-immigration. We are the pro-immigration, pro-legality party."
The venue was as important as the message. It was the Hispanic Leadership Network's "Inspiring Action" Conference. The largely Latino audience of Republican power brokers, strategists and activists had gathered in South Florida for the specific purpose of discussing the party's message for Latinos and the best ways to deliver it.
For weeks, the Republican Party brushed aside increasingly intense criticism from Latino leaders over harsh and inflammatory immigration talk from the presidential candidates.
This election, party leaders insisted, is about jobs, not immigration.
"Immigration has to be addressed," the Republican National Committee's newly appointed head of Hispanic outreach, Bettina Inclan, told The Huffington Post at the South Florida gathering. "But if we're talking about what's going to move people at the polls, I think it's really going to be the economy."
In the heat of the Republican primary campaign, though, the immigration issue kept thrusting itself to the forefront, in debates and on the trail.
Romney repeatedly said -- in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- that, if elected, he would veto the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants for completing two years of college or military service.
Somos Republicanos, the nation's largest group of Hispanic Republicans,promised to "veto Romney" at the polls over his immigration positions.
In Florida, however, where Latinos make up about 11 percent of the voters in the Republican primary, Romney modified his stance. During the candidate debate in Tampa, he said, "I would not sign the DREAM Act as it currently exists, but I would sign the DREAM Act if it were focused on military service."
Romney also offended Hispanics earlier this month when he launched a Spanish-language ad calling the United States "the land of opportunity." The ad started airing the same day he hailed the endorsement he got from Kris Kobach, the architect of the strict Arizona and Alabama crackdown laws that allow police to stop anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant.
In response, the powerful Service Employees International Union and the pro-Barack Obama super PAC, Priorities USA Action, fired out a radio ad campaign to show "The Two Faces of Mitt Romney."
Prominent Hispanic organizations and influential Republican Party members alike warned that the candidates' tough talk was alienating Latinos -- perhaps permanently.
"Romney's tin ear on this topic, on immigration, will hurt him should he be the nominee, is hurting the Republican Party and is hurting every conservative who cares about passing conservative legislation in the future," Mario H. Lopez, president of the conservative Hispanic Leadership Fund, told the Washington Post.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, too, has upset Republican party members for using the immigration issue as a weapon in the campaign. He quickly pulled a radio ad accusing Romney of being "anti-immigrant" after Rubio complained.
"This kind of language is more than just unfortunate. It's inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign," Rubio told the Miami Herald.
In an opinion piece for the Washington Post that ran the day before the Hispanic Leadership Network's conference opened, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush pointed out how critical Latinos are to the party's success. "For the Republican Party, the stakes could not be greater," Bush wrote. "Just eight years after the party's successful effort to woo Hispanic voters in 2004, this community -- the fastest-growing group in the United States, according to census data -- has drifted away."
Bush and other Republicans recognize how critical Latinos are to the party's future. They already represent 16 percent of the population and some 22 million eligible voters, the Pew Hispanic Center reports. By 2050, Hispanics are expected to reach 30 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census.
And immigration, as Bush pointed out in the Washington Post piece, plays a vital part in connecting with Hispanics, or losing them.
"Republicans should reengage on this issue and reframe it," he said. "Start by recognizing that new Americans strengthen our economy. We need more people to come to this country, ready to work and to contribute their creativity to our economy. U.S. immigration policies should reflect that principle. Just as Republicans believe in free trade of goods, we should support the freer flow of human talent."
Gingrich has consistently taken a more moderate tone on immigration and did so again Friday at the conference. He laid out his "simple steps" for achieving immigration reform, including "modernizing" the visa system, quickly deporting gang members, and removing regulatory restrictions on building a border fence so it can be completed faster.
But Romney clearly has heard the party's Latino concerns and embraced its strategy -- at least in Florida.
"I like immigration," he said. "I like legal immigration. I think it's important for America to recognize that immigration is an extraordinary source of vitality for our nation. That bringing people of other cultures here creates opportunity and growth for the entire economy."
A LOOK AT THE U.S. HISPANIC POPULATION: