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GOP hopefuls target Florida's Hispanic voters

A sign it’s getting close to Election Day in Florida: Mitt Romney softens his immigration stance and his opponent’s new ads end with “ Soy Newt Gingrich y apruebo este mensaje.’’

Bienvenido a Miami.

With their gringo Spanish and Castro-crackdown plans, the two leading GOP candidates are flocking this week to this Latin American-influenced county where 72 percent of the roughly 368,000 registered Republicans are Hispanic. To date, about 54,000 Republicans have cast early and absentee ballots.

Romney heads to the Freedom Tower on Wednesday afternoon to talk Latin American policy. Gingrich will do the same Wednesday morning at Florida International University. Each is also dropping by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce’s forum broadcast by Spanish-language powerhouse Univision. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who trail in the polls, are not making any scheduled appearances in Miami on Wednesday.

On Friday, Gingrich, Romney and Santorum are expected to appear before the Hispanic Leadership Network forum run by Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, a leader in Latino-Republican outreach. All three are scheduled to then meet with the mighty Latin Builders Association.

But they’ll all have some explaining to do after spending the past several months pandering to right wing voters in the early primary states, said Frank Sharry, who heads up America’s Voice, a liberal immigration reform group.

Now, the candidates must “square their right-wing rhetoric on things like English-only and immigration in a state that’s nearly a quarter Hispanic,’’ Sharry said.

The Republican candidates oppose the pro-immigrant DREAM Act, which many Hispanics support. Liberals are tarring them for being “anti-Hispanic’’ and a union group is bashing Romney with radio ads in Central Florida.

But Bush said it’s pure political posturing.

“Democrats have failed to deliver comprehensive reform,” Bush said in a written statement, noting that President Obama and a majority Democratic Congress didn’t pass the DREAM Act. “They have chosen to use these issues to drive a wedge.’’

The Service Employees International Union pounced on Romney’s debate comments on Monday when he said that people should leave the United States if they’re here illegally. He used the phrase “self deportation.”

“The self-deportation rhetoric,” SEIU’s secretary-treasurer, Eliseo Medina, said in a written statement, “shows a callous attitude towards the Hispanic community and a lack of understanding about what’s happening in the real world.”

The union is reinforcing that message in Tampa Bay and Orlando-area radio ads that are being financed by the pro-President Obama SuperPac, Priorities USA. The spots suggest Romney is “anti-Hispanic” — a faint echo of a Gingrich Spanish-language Miami radio ad that describe Romney’s positions as “anti-immigrant.”

But Romney on Monday explicitly softened his immigration stance at a debate. He said he didn’t want to physically deport those here illegally. And, for the first time in a debate, he endorsed a part of the DREAM Act that would give an immigrant a path to citizenship in return for military service.

“I would not sign the Dream Act as it currently exists,” Romney said. “But I would sign the Dream Act if it were focused on military service.”

That was a centerpiece of Gingrich’s immigration position at a Nov. 22 debate, where he also said that some law-abiding longtime illegal immigrants with roots in the community should be given a path to residency — just not citizenship.

Romney and others panned that idea. However, Romney was silent on citizenship for immigrant soldiers.

“I’m not going to start drawing lines here about who gets to stay and who gets to go,” said at the November debate. “The principle is that we are not going to have an amnesty system that says that people who come here illegally get to stay for the rest of their life in this country legally.”

Romney, however, had said on the campaign trail in Iowa that he favored giving citizenship to those who serve in the military.

If passed, the DREAM Act would allow children brought to the United States illegally family members to remain in the United States as legal residents, so long as they get accepted to college or the military.

Over the years, a candidate’s position on the DREAM Act has become a litmus test for many in the Latino community, who have a tendency to view opponents of the act with suspicion.

But immigration is a more nuanced issue in Florida than anywhere else in the country.

Cubans, the largest Hispanic group, effectively have a pathway to citizenship if they reach U.S. soil. Puerto Ricans, the next-largest group, are U.S. citizens. Neither group is deeply affected by current immigration proposals.

Still, in South Florida, nearly everyone knows someone who deserves to stay in the United States but can’t because of their illegal residency status, said Ana Navarro of Miami, a supporter of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman until he dropped out of the race.

Navarro also advised Sen. John McCain’s 2008 campaign, which beat Romney, in part, by gaining an eye-popping 52,000-vote margin in Miami-Dade. McCain beat Romney statewide by only 97,000 votes.

McCain won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in that Florida primary, while Romney only garnered 15 percent, according to exit polls.

The numbers are a clear indicator that Republican candidates ignore the Hispanic community at their peril. Both Gingrich and Romney are advertising on Spanish-language radio. Romney has Spanish-language TV ads, and Gingrich plans to have one soon.

Sen. Rubio, who has been criticized by immigrant advocates for his opposition to the DREAM Act, accused Democrats of trying to “divide the American people” over immigration.

“Hispanic voters have the same concerns as everyone else, maybe even heightened concerns about the economy. The Republican Party can and should speak to those concerns,” he said. “We cannot win elections without taking our message to as many audiences as we can But the Republican Party is and must be the pro-legal immigration party, and we should communicate our policies in an optimistic and hopeful way.”

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