Their campaigns promised a mano-a-mano fight, and both frontrunners for the Republican nomination, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, have lost no time in throwing bombs in their quest for the Latino vote -- or, more precisely, the Cuban vote -- in the Florida presidential primary on Jan. 31.
Curiously, one of the topics they're tackling is immigration -- an issue Republicans have strenuously avoided in recent years whenever anyone is looking for an actual solution, but exploited eagerly when they've been able to secure a political advantage by catering to their conservative base.
In Florida, those seeking the Republican nomination in the presidential contest are attempting to demonstrate that they're pro-immigrant and pro-Hispanic, while in previous years they've stayed silent while more extreme voices defined the message and the image of the entire Republican Party for the Hispanic community -- or they've joined the chorus of extremists and supported anti-immigrant proposals to advance their political goals.
Both frontrunners participated (separately) in a forum hosted by Univision.com, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), and Miami Dade College, with interviews conducted by journalist and Noticiero Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.
Gingrich hit Romney with everything he had, after calling him "anti-immigrant" in a radio ad and then taking it off the air after being criticized by Hispanic Republican leaders. He mocked Romney's suggestion that the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States could be dealt with via "self-deportation," calling it a "fantasy." He also reiterated his limited support for the military component of the DREAM Act, as well as his proposal to provide some form of immigration relief to those who had lived in the United States for more than 20 years -- which, as Ramos pointed out, leaves the majority of undocumented immigrants out in the cold.
For his part, Romney called himself pro-immigrant: "I like immigrants."
Although he's promised that if elected he would veto the DREAM Act if the bill came to his desk, he assured viewers he is not trying to "punish" undocumented youth who arrived in the country without papers through no decisión of their own -- and that they were certainly welcome to study in affordable universities. Never mind that some of them can't afford any university at all -- and even if they could, their college degrees wouldn't render them employable, because they would still lack papers.
Romney also insisted that he's not proposing to go around the country rounding up immigrants and shipping them off in buses -- but that, with a well-implemented E-Verify system and severe employer sanctions, his "self-deportation" plan will work on its own.
Lastly, Romney criticized Gingrich for the latter's attacks-especially on immigration.
"It's very tempting to come to an audience like this and to pander to the audience and say what you hope people will want to hear," Romney said.
Moments later, the former governor of Massachusetts (who lost the Florida primary in 2008 to Sen. John McCain) was at the iconic Freedom Tower to tell a Cuban-American audience what he hoped they would want to hear: promises to take a firmer hand with brothers Raúl and Fidel Castro in Cuba, to repeal the Helms-Burton Act, and not to blink in confrontations with figures like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.
Romney was flanked by prominent leaders and elected officials from the Cuban-American community: former senator Mel Martínez, former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and former Congressman Lincoln Díaz-Balart -- all supporters of comprehensive immigration reform, and of the DREAM Act Romney opposes. They argue, however, that the central issue is the economy, and that Romney is the man to turn the country around and who has a real possibility of beating Barack Obama in the general election.
Latinos represent an estimated 11 percent of the Republican vote in Florida, with the majority of it concentrated in the south of the state -- 59 percent of Latino Republicans live in Miami-Dade County alone -- and consisting mostly of Cubans and Cuban-Americans who are split between Gingrich and Romney. In general, Latinos represent 13 percent of all voters in the state -- with the voter bloc dominated by the influence of the Puerto Rican vote in Central Florida's "I-4" corridor, considered one of the most important swing areas in the country come November. In fact, only 32 percent of Hispanic voters registered in Florida are Cuban-American.
But at the moment, attention is centered on the Hispanic Republican vote for the primary. And in this fight, one of the most significant developments of the week was the letter sent by a group of Republican Hispanic leaders to Gingrich, asking him to take the ad in which he had called Romney "anti-immigrant" off the air because it was "untrue" and "offensive." Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who's stayed neutral in the primary and who is incessantly discussed as a potential running mate for the eventual Republican nominee, also criticized the ad.
The most risible part of the letter, perhaps, was the claim these leaders made that calling Romney anti-immigrant "hurts the progress that Republicans have made with Hispanics."
What progress are they talking about? A new poll from Univision, Latino Decisions and ABC News found that in the general election, Obama would beat Romney 67 percent to 25 percent among Latino voters, and Gingrich 70 percent to 22 percent.
Maybe they mean the progress they've made with Hispanics in South Florida.
Maybe they insist on maintaining the false belief that this vote is representative of the national Hispanic vote their party needs to win the presidency.
Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America's Voice.
Follow Maribel Hastings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maribelhastings