GOP presidential candidates seek Hispanic votes


WASHINGTON — Suddenly, the presidential campaign has acquired a Spanish accent.

“Romney cree en nosotros,” U.S. Rep. Mario
Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., tells viewers of a TV ad in South Florida, amid
scenes of swaying palm trees, the Miami skyline and smiling
Cuban-Americans. “Romney believes in us.”

Far from frigid Iowa and New Hampshire, Republican
front-runner Mitt Romney and his backers are reaching out to Hispanic
voters in the Sunshine State while trying to lock up its winner-take-all
primary Jan. 31. So far, his strategy seems to be working.

Despite his hard line on immigration, Romney has
rounded up endorsements from Hispanic Republican leaders across Florida,
while pollsters and political analysts predict he will draw solid
support from Hispanic voters in the primary. Hoping not to be outdone,
Republican rival Newt Gingrich stumped in Miami on Friday and accused
Romney of “pandering to hard-liners” on immigration issues.

“So far, Romney has the jump on him. I’ve already
gotten three fliers from Romney — in Spanish,” said Dario Moreno, a
Miami pollster and professor at Florida International University who
focuses on Hispanic voters. “Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area are
where Newt could gain some ground by presenting a more moderate stance
on immigration than Romney.”

A bigger struggle over this volatile issue will come
in the general-election campaign, when the Republican nominee squares
off against President Barack Obama.

While preparing his re-election campaign, Obama is
courting Hispanic leaders, reasserting his support for an immigration
overhaul and revising rules to make it easier for close family members
of U.S. citizens to avoid deportation and work here legally. The new
rules spare illegal-immigrant relatives from having to return to their
home countries indefinitely while seeking permission to re-enter on
grounds of family hardship.

The rules will affect tens of thousands nationwide.
The debate on more sweeping immigration changes could affect millions
who now live in the shadows of the law.

These issues really hit home in Florida — far more so
than in Iowa, New Hampshire or the next primary site in South Carolina —
largely because the Sunshine State has the third-largest number of
illegal-immigrant residents, estimated at 825,000.

That number has dwindled rapidly as jobs dried up
during and after the Great Recession. Five years ago, Florida’s
illegal-immigrant population topped a million, according to the
nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

The issue remains important to immigrant communities.
And it is also important to many voters who say illegal immigrants take
jobs from Americans while straining schools and hospitals.

“I don’t want to point fingers at anybody, but many
people who come here will work for cash under the table, which keeps
American citizens from getting a job,” said Vicki Samuels, a Republican
and tea-party activist in Pembroke Pines. “It’s a drain on social
services. It’s also a drain on schools. Taxpayers can only make up so
much of it.”

Most Hispanics in Florida are Puerto Ricans, who are
citizens, or Cuban-Americans, who are citizens or legal residents. They
are not directly affected by the immigration debate. Some resent those
who entered illegally.

But polls have shown that most favor proposals that
would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and many are
offended by harsh campaign rhetoric that they think smacks of prejudice
against immigrants and Hispanics.

The immigration debate “has been turned into a
political anti-immigrant and racist diatribe, when in reality it’s a
legal question,” said Phil Tua, a Puerto Rican Republican in Longwood,
who supports Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the primary. “Because of the
rhetoric, you have Puerto Ricans marching in the streets for illegal

Republican candidates are not bigoted, he said, “but they need to explain themselves better.”

He and some other Hispanic Republican activists say
Romney is popular among primary voters, though not because of his
immigration stance. Romney wants to build a fence along the Southwest
border and deny education benefits to illegal residents. He also vows to
veto the proposed DREAM Act, which would provide legal status to those
who attend college or serve in the armed forces.

By contrast, Perry supported lower in-state tuition
rates for illegal immigrants at Texas universities. And Gingrich has
said illegal immigrants who have worked, paid taxes and formed families
should be allowed to stay.

“Our main concern is not immigration, it’s job
creation and making sure the country is safe,” said Nancy Acevedo of
Winter Springs, chairwoman of the National Republican Hispanic Alliance,
who backs Perry but also likes Romney. “There is huge support for Mitt
Romney because people know him. He has been here before, and it makes a
difference when people can put a name and a face together.”

Endorsements from Diaz-Balart and other prominent
Cuban-American Republicans — notably his brother, former U.S. Rep.
Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami — gave
Romney a boost, even though they don’t entirely agree with him on
immigration matters.

Pollster Moreno said Hispanic Republicans tend to
follow their leaders and support establishment candidates who are
relatively moderate on domestic policy, all of which helps Romney. He
said many elderly Cuban-Americans already are voting by absentee ballot
before Gingrich and other Republican candidates have much chance to
campaign in Florida.

The debate over immigration will intensify when Obama
tries to regain support from Hispanics to win Florida’s 29 electoral
votes. Moreno said Obama won about 57 percent of Florida’s Hispanic vote
in 2008, including 38 percent of Cuban-Americans.

A Pew poll in December indicated that Hispanics
nationwide overwhelmingly favor Obama in a potential matchup with Romney
— 68 percent to 23 percent — despite disenchantment with the
president’s failure to overhaul immigration law and his administration’s
controversial deportation policies.

Democrats already are attacking Romney on the immigration front.

“His policies won’t fly in Florida,” U.S. Rep. Ted
Deutch, D-Fla., said. “In an effort to win over the far right wing of
the Republican Party, Mitt Romney has made it clear that on immigration
he would become the most extreme presidential nominee of our time.”


©2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

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