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Gingrich, Romney court Florida’s Hispanic vote

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

Mitt Romney campaigned in Miami with Representatives Connie Mack (left) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, both Republicans.

MIAMI - A combative Newt Gingrich and his GOP rival Mitt Romney, relying more on projecting a sense of sincerity, courted South Florida’s potent Hispanic vote yesterday in a tightening race in the state.

During an interview with the Spanish-language network Univision, Gingrich ridiculed Romney for suggesting during a debate Monday that illegal immigrants would return to their own countries through “self-deportation’’ if employers demanded they show a government-issued ID to keep working in the United States.

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“I think you have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts and automatic $20 million income a year with no work to have some fantasy this far from reality,’’ Gingrich said, lacing his barb with details revealed by the income tax returns Romney released Tuesday.

Romney, during his own Univision interview, noted that Gingrich had previously supported the concept of self-deportation and labeled his criticism now as pandering. He also deplored a pro-Gingrich radio ad that labeled Romney “anti-immigrant.’’

“It’s very sad for a candidate to resort to that kind of epithet,’’ Romney said. Candidates can have political differences, he said, “but we don’t attack each other with those kind of terrible terms.’’

Both candidates have called the Hispanic vote, which John McCain overwhelmingly won in the 2008 Florida primary, important to taking the overall state and assuming the mantle of front-runner nationally.

Their appearances came after a poll showed Romney holding on to a slight lead over Gingrich, although the 36 percent-to-34 percent difference was within the survey’s 4 percentage point margin of error. Nonetheless, a similar poll by the same organization, Quinnipiac University, had shown Romney with a 12-point lead over Gingrich on Jan. 9.

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A national Gallup daily tracking poll showed Gingrich regaining a lead over Romney after the former US House Speaker’s win in South Carolina last weekend, although Romney picked up a point yesterday and trailed only 31 percent to 28 percent.

The other two GOP candidates, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, trailed badly in both surveys. The four candidates face off again tonight in a debate in Jacksonville sponsored in part by the Hispanic Leadership Network.

Romney has won the endorsement of two of the most prominent Cuban-Americans in Florida: Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Republicans.

Senator Marco Rubio, the other leading figure among Hispanic Republican politicians, has said he will not endorse a candidate in the primary campaign. Yet, yesterday he defended Romney over his immigration positions and embraced his conservatism.

“Romney is a conservative,’’ Rubio said in a statement that undercuts Gingrich’s turning of the phrase “Massachusetts moderate’’ into a pejorative on the stump. “And he was one of the first national Republican leaders to endorse me,’’ Rubio said. “He came to Florida, campaigned hard for me, and made a real difference in my race.’’

Miami-Dade County has 368,000 registered Republicans, of whom 72 percent are Hispanic. All told, about 11 percent of the registered Republicans in the state are Hispanic; the largest segment is Cuban-Americans.

The rhetoric on illegal immigration has been inflammatory at times in debates and on the stump. Yet the issue of jobs and the economy is expected to dominate in Florida, which has 9.9 percent jobless rate. In addition, the immigration issue tends to carry less significance among Cuban-Americans, given their special immigration status, and among another large Hispanic bloc, Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens.

During a second appearance in Miami, Romney reached out specifically to Cuban-Americans by pledging to restore a full US embargo on Cuba and accusing President Obama of engaging in appeasement with the former Cuban president, Fidel Castro, and other tyrants around the world. “We have to recognize that if we give, and we bend, and we accommodate, and we appease, evil people, they will not be good back, and they will be more evil to their people - and to us,’’ he said.

Romney accused Obama of giving “ a gift to Castro’’ by expanding travel to Cuba and by loosening restrictions limiting the flow of US funds to the island nation. “I want to be the American president that’s proud to be able to say that, ‘I was president at the time that we brought freedom back to the people of Cuba,’’’ he said.

But not all the pitches were serious for the former Massachusetts governor. During his Univision interview, Romney chuckled when Jorge Ramos suggested he was Mexican-American because the Mexican Constitution would have bestowed citizenship on his father, George, who was born in Mexico to US citizens.

“I don’t think people would think I was being honest with them if I said I was Mexican-American,’’ Romney said. “But I would appreciate it if you would get that word out.’’

The candidates’ effort to reach Hispanic voters continues tomorrow. Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum are scheduled to appear at a Hispanic Leadership Network forum organized by Rubio and Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor who is extremely popular with conservatives and has made outreach to the Hispanic community a hallmark of his career.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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