Bellicose Romney rejects rival's 'repulsive' anti-immigrant claim

Eager to capture Florida primary, both candidates compete to court Latino Republicans

Jacksonville, Florida

Scrambling to capture next Tuesday's Florida primary and regain his momentum in the Republican nomination race, Mitt Romney fiercely courted the state's crucial Latino community yesterday while at the same time accusing Newt Gingrich, his main rival, of misrepresenting his position on immigration.

After calling a Gingrich ad that attacked him on immigration "repulsive" during a debate in Jacksonville on Thursday, Mr Romney departed on a Friday tour first to a Latin Leaders conference in Miami and then to Orlando, an area with a concentration of Hispanics.

Both rivals know that victory here rests on attracting Hispanics who make up 10 per cent of all likely Republican voters. Among them Cuban-Americans are the largest group followed by Puerto Ricans. Republicans have turned off Hispanics with their rhetoric on illegal immigration and the Mexican border.

In a speech to the Latin Builders Association also in Miami, Mr Gingrich eschewed all mention of his rival and focused on the housing mess in the state. "In the long run, the answer to the housing crisis is getting people to work," Mr Gingrich told the association, promising to cut regulations and slash taxes.

Mr Romney's 2008 nomination quest faltered after Florida where John McCain won with disproportionate support from Hispanics. This time, it might be Mr Romney's turn. A Latino Decisions poll taken last week showed him easily leading Mr Gingrich 49 per cent to 23 per cent among Latino Republicans. Meanwhile, he has already been endorsed by a slew of prominent Republicans in the state. The governor of Puerto Rico, Luis Fortuno, was set to appear at the Orlando rally with Mr Romney last night.

The apparent Romney edge may explain the aggressive stance taken by Mr Gingrich, who in a debate in December outlined a more moderate position to allow illegal immigrants who have been in America for 25 years to stay. His radio spot, which branded Mr Romney the most "anti-immigrant" of the Republican runners, was taken down after complaints from the US Senator here, Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American.

"That's inexcusable," Mr Romney said of the radio commercial in Thursday's debate, saying he is only opposed to illegal immigration. "I'm not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico... The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive. Don't use a term like that."

While Mr Gingrich pulled ahead in Florida polls after his stunning upset victory in South Carolina a week ago, surveys now show him slipping again.

Questioned about his newly bellicose stance, Mr Romney, who has a new debate coach, was clear: "When I'm shot at, I'll return fire," he said. "I'm no shrinking violet." Previously he has been criticised for appearing too wooden and patrician before the cameras.

The heated exchanges on immigration in the debate here ended with Mr Gingrich complaining about a Romney ad saying he had described Spanish as the "language of the ghetto". "I doubt it's mine," Mr Romney said, displaying an ignorance about his own ads in the state. The ad was one of his.

The Sunshine State: Voting in Florida

Voting record

Florida is one of the most important swing states for both the Republican primaries and the race for the White House (as seen in 2000). President Obama won the state with a critical 2.8 per cent margin in 2008.

Who is voting?

Florida's demographics are more representative of the US than the previous Republican primary states. Of its 19 million population, around 22.5 per cent are Hispanic or Latino and about 17 per cent are aged over 65. Miami is regarded as liberal but the north is conservative (more fiscally than socially – a boon for Romney). Four million are registered Republicans and around 450,000 absentee ballots have been sent.

What are the key issues?

The recession has hit Florida hard. House prices have plunged around 45 per cent since 2006 and half of current home sales are the result of a default. Floridians want a candidate who will stem the foreclosures and get the market moving, but both Romney and Gingrich believe the housing market should be left to recover on its own.

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