Romney cree en nosotros —U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.
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."
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."
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