Mitt Romney said Friday that he would back the people of Puerto Rico if they voted to become a state -- a position advocated by Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño, who endorsed the former Massachusetts governor several hours later and will campaign with him Friday night in Orlando.
During a speech to the Hispanic Leadership Network at a golf resort in Miami, Romney drew wild cheers when he raised Puerto Rico's status and the fact that there is a referendum coming up on the question later this year.
"I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide, like [Fortuño] feels, that they want to become a state," Romney said in Miami, "and 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 a model in the Caribbean – one more model in Latin America of the benefits of having freedom."
Romney's remarks came at a time when he and Newt Gingrich are competing for Latino voters in Florida. Gingrich has tried to cast Romney as "anti-immigrant" because of his hardline positions on illegal immigration – an accusation that Romney fought fiercely during Thursday night's debate.
Gingrich has gained some ground among Cuban American voters – who are a sizable force among the 368,000 voters in Miami-Dade County. About three-quarters of GOP voters in Miami-Dade County, where Romney and Gingrich spoke this morning, are Latino.
Romney also won a standing ovation when he said there was a time coming soon when "Cuba will be free."
"That's going to happen, but we're going to have to get organized for it," Romney told the audience of the Hispanic Leadership Network. "We're going to have to get organized for it. We're going to have to recognize the people there want freedom as people do all over the world and America can't sit back."
"I will not only say something when Fidel Castro finally leaves this Earth; I will do something; I will be behind the voices of freedom here and the voices of freedom there," Romney said. "We will help Cuba become free."
Romney pledged that he would launch an initiative bringing American and Latin American businesses together to foster greater cooperation within the first 100 days of his presidency: "This is a massive opportunity, not of charity but of opportunity, it will help lift both parts of the world.