Rejecting Newt Gingrich’s charge that Mitt Romney is anti-immigrant, the former Massachusetts governor responded with an accusation of his own, saying Wednesday that his main rival is pandering to Latino voters in next week’s Florida presidential primary.
But Romney, during a quick visit to Miami, did a little bit of special-interest catering of his own. He told a Cuban American audience that he would appoint a czar to promote freedom in Cuba and throughout Latin America if he is elected president.
Romney also delivered a toughly worded attack on the Castro regime that, at one point, had listeners wondering if he was hinting at a military strike or targeted assassination against the leadership in Havana, which President John F. Kennedy tried unsuccessfully more than a half-century ago.
With the latest polls showing a dead heat in Florida, the biggest primary state yet in 2012, the leading GOP candidates faced off in separate appearances on a “Meet the Candidates” forum sponsored by the Univision TV network, which beams its programs at Latino voters, who are expected to cast about 1 in 10 Republican primary ballots.
Romney, who has staked out a hard-line position on illegal immigration, was asked by moderator Jorge Ramos to respond to Gingrich’s claim, earlier in the day at the same forum, that the former Massachusetts governor is anti-immigrant.
Romney said it was “very sad” for Gingrich “to resort to that kind of epithet. It’s just inappropriate. There are differences between candidates on important issues, but we don’t attack each other with those kind of terrible terms. I am not anti-immigrant. I’m pro-immigrant. I like immigration. Immigration has been an extraordinary source of strength in this country. As you, I’m sure, know, immigrants form more businesses than domestic-born Americans. The immigration population in this country has created great vitality in our economy, as well as in our culture.”
Gingrich had also ridiculed Romney’s statement, in the most recent GOP debate, that one way to deal with the millions of people who are in the U.S. illegally would be for them to voluntarily deport themselves back to their home countries. Romney didn’t back away from the self-deportation notion, but instead argued that Gingrich had come out for the same idea on a conservative talk-show in 2010.
“Actually he was asked on the Laura Ingraham show whether he supported self-deportation, and he said ‘yes,’” Romney said. “So, unfortunately for him, these are things that he has already spoken out about and he’s spoken out in favor. Now, I recognize that it’s very tempting to come to an audience like this and to pander to the audience, and to say what you hope people will want to hear. But frankly I think that’s unbecoming of a presidential candidate and I think that was a mistake on his part.”
From that 20-minute appearance, Romney went down the street to Freedom Tower, an icon for thousands of refugees from Cuba who were processed into the United States there, and gave a red-meat speech that got an enthusiastic reception from an audience of conservative Cuban Americans.
Romney promised, if elected, to create an office in his administration that would promote democracy in Latin America by coordinating the activities of the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services and other arms of the U.S. government -- a post commonly referred to as a “czar” in Washington, and something that Republicans are fond of criticizing President Obama for having done.
Romney spiced his remarks to the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC with inflammatory language toward the communist regime in Cuba. Romney said that, if he becomes president, “it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet.”
He went on to say that “we will be prepared with every possible effort to encourage a change of regimes in Cuba” and “strike for freedom in Cuba.”
But Romney apparently wasn’t implying another U.S. attempt on Castro’s life. Toward the end of his speech, he referred to the time, which he indicated would come soon, that Cuba’s “old leadership finally” will be “kicking the bucket.”
As he has before, Romney attacked Obama’s policy of opening toward Cuba. “This president does not understand that by helping Castro” that “he is accommodating and encouraging a policy of repression.” Obama’s policies, he said, had produced nothing in return except continued suffering that has allowed another generation of Cubans to suffer under the hands of an “oppressive” regime.
Romney was introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, one of several popular Cuban American politicians supporting his campaign. Gingrich has a well-liked Cuban American congressional supporter of his own, Rep. David Rivera, also a Florida Republican.
Miami-Dade County is a crucial battlefield in the Florida primary. The state’s most populous county also has the most Republican voters, roughly 75% of whom are Cuban Americans.