DORAL, Fla. – Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich today vied for the votes of Hispanics with tokens such as supporting statehood for Puerto Rico - if its residents approve it - while also defending immigration views that have caused them discomfort.
“We are not anti-immigrant. We are not anti-immigration,” Romney told a convention of the Hispanic Leadership Network after a lengthy recitation of his views. “We are the pro-immigration, pro-legality, pro-citizenship party.”
The former businessman also pledged that, if elected president, he would convene an economic forum within his first 100 days so US and Latin American businesses could explore partnerships.
He similarly made a 100-day pledge to appoint a task force targeting drug dealing in the region, as well as to convince American children that using drugs spurs drug-trade deaths south of the border.
In addition, Romney said he would appoint an envoy for “democracy and freedom” who would have a budget and quantifiable goals for spreading those ideals in Latin America.
“Think about this: We convince people around the world to buy a brown, caramel-colored water called ‘Coca-Cola,’ and to pay like a half-day’s wage for it,” he said. “I mean, it’s a great product; I like Coca-Cola. My goodness, we sell it around the world. And yet democracy, we don’t sell that so well.”
Hispanics, especially Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, are being targeted by all four GOP candidates heading into Tuesday’s Florida primary.
Romney has opened a polling lead in Florida after losing to Gingrich in last weekend’s South Carolina primary, and his confidence was evident in a more than 20-minute speech that contained not one reference to his rival.
Gingrich, by contrast, singled out Romney by name as he defended his immigration views during remarks to the Hispanic Leadership Network immediately before Romney.
Gingrich, repeating some of the promises he made earlier to a Latin Builders Association meeting in Miami, told the crowd he would re-orient the US vision from the Middle East to points south.
He not only urged the US military to move supervision of Mexico from its Northern Command headquarters in Nebraska to Southern Command in Miami, but he also called for rallying opposition to Fidel Castro in Cuba and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
“I think we should take an aggressive strategy, a non-military strategy but an aggressive strategy, of replacing Chavez and of giving the people of Venezuela the opportunity going forward,” he said.
The former House speaker also reiterated what he described as a long-held view Puerto Ricans should be allowed to decide whether their island commonwealth should become the 51st state.
When a woman stood up in the crowd and challenged Gingrich to reveal his own preference, he did not yield.
“I believe the people of Puerto Rico should make the decision. It’s not my place to judge for Puerto Rico,” he said. “But what I’m telling you is that if the people of Puerto Rico make the decision they want to be a state, I will work actively to help them negotiate the process of accession to the United States.”
Romney was similarly noncommittal about his personal views, even as the former Massachusetts governor said he agreed with Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno’s expectation that his residents will approve statehood in a November referendum.
“I can tell you that I will work with him to make sure that if that vote comes out in favor of statehood, that we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico and, again, to create model in the Caribbean and Latin America of the benefits of having freedom,” said Romney.
Earlier, during his appearance before the Latin Builders Association, Gingrich called on Congress to immediately pass a part of the DREAM Act that would put the children of illegal immigrants on a special path to becoming US citizens if they serve in the nation’s armed forces.
“I think there is no opposition to that part of the DREAM Act. I think it should go through immediately,” he said.
The Florida-based trade association is heavily populated by Cuban-Americans.
The DREAM Act modification was announced today by US Representative David Rivera, a Miami Republican who introduced Gingrich to the builders.
Another portion of the act, which would provide citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from college, is more controversial and is opposed by both Gingrich and Romney.
Cubans would be less affected than other Hispanics by either DREAM Act change because they get special residency status if they flee the island and reach US shores.
The builders later endorsed Rick Santorum, who spoke after Gingrich, for president.
Glen Johnson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.