01/25/2012 05:50 pm ET

Florida Primary 2012: Majority-Latino Audience Met GOP Front-Runners In Univision Forum

In what was being billed as "the first major Hispanic event in the 2012 election," Univision anchor Jorge Ramos held separate one-on-one discussions Wednesday with Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in front of a live audience.

It's the first time during the primary campaign that the Republican candidates are addressing questions about the issues, at length, before a primarily Latino audience.

"Historically, I think, the Hispanic vote and Hispanic voters have not received, in my opinion, the same level of targeted specific attention and communication from Republican candidates that, perhaps, other segments of the population have," United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Javier Palomarez told The Huffington Post. "So, for us, this is historic."

The event is also a nod to the importance of Univision which, as the channel with the largest audience of the Spanish-language networks, presents a key tool for reaching out to the nation's Latinos

Univision had scheduled a candidate debate for Jan. 29, two days before the Florida primary. But after the Miami Herald reported that the network tried to "strong-arm" Sen. Marco Rubio with a critical report about his brother-in-law, almost all of the Republican candidates passed.

Palomarez of the USHCC said his organization had always favored a forum over a debate format for the event.

The group was "less interested in the candidates talking to themselves and the candidates debating themselves," he said. "We've seen that already. Several times. So we were less interested in them having a dialogue and trying to one-up each other on stage. We were more interested in an unfettered straight dialogue with us about the issues that matter to us."

It's also important to the candidates. As they campaigned through Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, their harsh and heated anti-immigrant rhetoric alienated many Latinos across the country.

Most have taken hard-line stands on immigration and against giving paths to citizenship to undocumented immigrants or their children. Romney has vowed to veto the Dream Act, if elected. Gingrich, on the other hand, advocates a path to legality -- although not necessarily citizenship -- for longtime undocumented immigrants.

Florida, however, is the first state in the primary race with a significantly large Latino population, including 11 percent of the registered Republican voters -- enough to sway a close election. Romney and Gingrich both have begun advertising heavily in Spanish in the state, and Gingrich's ads accuse Romney of being "anti-immigrant."

Yet the event almost didn't happen.

The fact that it did shows how seriously the front-runners are taking Florida's Latino vote.

"We think it's important to converse with Hispanic voters, not just in Florida, but across the nation," Gingrich's Florida campaign director Jose Mallea told The Huffington Post.

The "Meet the Candidates" event -- two separate sessions, in two separate locations, with two separate audiences, and with the candidates never crossing paths -- came about after lengthy on-again, off-again discussions.

As the sponsors struggled to pull the event together, Steve Clemons, blogging on The Huffington Post on Friday, reported that Romney still had not agreed to participate. According to a spokeswoman for the USHCC, one of the event's co-sponsors, Ron Paul declined to participate from the start.

On Monday, a press release went out saying sessions were scheduled with Gingrich, Romney, and Rick Santorum.

On Tuesday, however, Santorum dropped out. The candidate's national communications director Hogan Gidley told The Huffington Post the cancellation was due to miscommunication and a scheduling conflict.

Whether it's as a result of the advertising, a boost from Gingrich's South Carolina win, or a lift resulting from two particularly strong debate performances before last Saturday's primary, Gingrich is climbing fast in the polls. He's gone from trailing Romney by 11 points, to a 6 point lead in the latest Quinnipiac University Polling Institute survey.


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