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