Why Florida's Latino Republicans tilt toward Mitt Romney

The question of who wins Florida's Republican Latino vote could determine who wins the Florida primary Tuesday. Polls show Mitt Romney in front, but Newt Gingrich is not out of it. 

Charles Dharapak/AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at the Hispanic Leadership Network's lunch at Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami, Fla., Friday.

Heading into Tuesday’s pivotal GOP primary in Florida, Mitt Romney clearly has stronger support than Newt Gingrich among the state’s influential Republican Latino community.

It was evident on Friday, when an energized Mr. Romney got a more enthusiastic reception than Mr. Gingrich at a conference near Miami of the Hispanic Leadership Network, an advocacy group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

A recent survey bears that out. Forty-nine percent of Latino likely voters in Florida’s Republican primary back Romney, with Gingrich coming in a distant second at 23 percent, according to a poll by Latino Decisions for ABC News and Univision. Eleven percent of the Republican primary electorate is Latino, and in a close race, could tip the scales.  

Romney is also supported by four of the state’s most prominent Latino politicians – all of them Cuban-American, the largest subgroup of Florida’s 1.5 million Hispanics. Former Sen. Mel Martinez is honorary co-chair of Romney’s National Hispanic Steering Committee, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, are all committee co-chairs.

In addition, Romney announced Friday the endorsement of the Republican governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuño. Puerto Ricans represent the second largest segment of Florida Latinos.

So why more enthusiasm for Romney than Gingrich or the other Republican candidates still in the race? In a word, it’s Romney’s career in the private sector, which appeals to entrepreneurial-minded Hispanics.

“I was for Herman Cain, then when he dropped out, I switched to Mitt Romney,” says Frank Diaz of Miami, who owns a public relations and marketing firm with his wife. “I am sympathetic to business owners.”

Mr. Diaz also sees Romney as more electable – or as he puts it, having more appeal to “mainstream voters” – than Gingrich. His wife, Susy Alvarez-Diaz, also supports Romney, citing his articulation of issues in global terms.

In their remarks to the Hispanic Leadership Network, both Romney and Gingrich spoke of their support for a Cuba liberated from Communist rule, enhanced trade with Latin America, and support for immigration reform.

But on that last issue, it is Gingrich’s emphasis on finding what he calls a “humane” way to deal with illegal immigration – particularly law-abiding people who have been in the country a long time – that leads some of Florida’s Latino Republicans to back the former House speaker.

Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera, economic developer for the city of Doral, is one such Gingrich supporter. “There are plenty of people who are here illegally who have proven themselves,” Ms. Rodriguez Aguilera says. “They pay their taxes, they’re making America stronger.”

Gingrich has proposed a “citizen panel” to review the cases of longtime illegal immigrants who have a family or a sponsor and who, he says, should be allowed to get residency.

Gingrich has also expressed support for a modified version of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought to this country by their parents. Gingrich says he would sign such legislation only if it required military service. Playing catchup, Romney later said he would agree to the same provision.  

Some conference attendees remain undecided in the Republican primary – and can make a case for either Romney or Gingrich.

Romney is strong among Latino Republicans, “because he was a very inclusive governor of Massachusetts,” says Mark Garces, a lawyer from central Florida who is undecided in the primary. “Romney is a proven leader with business acumen. The Hispanic community here is very diverse, but if there’s one thing that drives them, it’s hard work.”

And the case for Gingrich? “Proven leadership and the ability to articulate conservative ideas,” says Mr. Garces. “The Contract with America precipitated a generation of change in the 1990s.”

Four years ago, Florida’s top Cuban-American politicians backed John McCain, who went on to win the Republican nomination. Now they’re in Romney’s camp.

“One thing about the Cuban vote – the leaders can deliver it,” says Brad Coker, the Jacksonville, Fla.-based managing director of Mason-Dixon polling. “That’s a big plus for Romney this time around.”

New to the national political scene since 2008 is Florida’s junior senator, Marco Rubio (R). He has conspicuously not issued an endorsement, but he did come to Romney’s defense on Wednesday over a Spanish-language radio ad Gingrich had aired calling Romney “the most anti-immigration candidate.”  

Senator Rubio called the ad “inaccurate” and “inflammatory,” and Gingrich stopped running it. Rubio is often mentioned as a potential running mate for the GOP ticket.

Romney was the first Republican this cycle to go up with a Spanish-language TV ad in Florida, narrated by his son Craig, who is fluent in Spanish. At the Hispanic conference on Friday, Craig Romney introduced his father in Spanish, calling him a man of faith and integrity.

The other two Republicans still in the race, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum, are trailing badly in Florida polls. Congressman Paul of Texas is not competing in Tuesday’s primary. Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, won the endorsement of the Latin Builders Association in Miami on Friday, after addressing the group and telling the story of his Italian immigrant grandfather. He is heading to Pennsylvania Saturday to do his taxes, then returning to Florida on Sunday.

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