DORAL, Fla. - Republicans Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich vied for the votes of Hispanics yesterday with tokens such as supporting statehood for Puerto Rico - if its residents approve it - while also defending immigration views that have caused Hispanics 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.
Hispanics, especially Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, are being wooed by all four GOP candidates heading into Tuesday’s Florida primary.
Romney has opened a nine-point lead over Gingrich in a Quinnipiac poll 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 reorient 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.
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.
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.
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,’’ he said. “I think it should go through immediately.’’
The Florida-based trade association is heavily populated by Cuban-Americans.
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.
Yesterday, Gingrich began running an ad in Florida criticizing Romney’s explanation during Thursday’s debate of his vote for Paul Tsongas in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary. Romney undercut his credibility when he tried to distance himself from that vote by saying, “I’ve never voted for a Democrat when there was a Republican on the ballot,’’ Romney said. “I have always voted for a Republican any time there was a Republican on the ballot.’’
The reality is that there was a Republican presidential primary in Massachusetts in 1992 between President George H.W. Bush and Pat Buchanan.
Furthermore, the answer was the latest evolution in Romney’s explanation about the vote.
When first asked as a 1994 US Senate candidate about records showing him voting in the 1992 Democratic primary, Romney said he could not recall for whom he voted.
Then Romney told the Globe he voted for Tsongas because he preferred his ideas to his then-opponent for the nomination, Bill Clinton. Later, he added that it was proof he was not a partisan politician.
Yet in 2007, while making his first run for president, Romney offered a new explanation: He said he voted for Tsongas as a tactical maneuver, aiming to present the “weakest opponent’’ possible for Bush.