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Dead heat sparks fiery fight for Latino vote

A lady at a Latino voter phone bank calls fellow Latinos on behalf of Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential election campaign.
by Obama For America - California/Flickr (cc by-nc-nd)
A lady at a Latino voter phone bank makes calls out to fellow Latino voters in August, 2010.

Accusations were hurled, ads pulled, foreign leaders threatened as presidential hopefuls aggressively court the Latino vote ahead of next week's Florida primary.

The political rhetoric was white-hot in Miami yesterday. Accusations were hurled. Ads were pulled. Foreign leaders were threatened. And all because Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are aggressively courting the Latino vote ahead of next week's Florida primary.

The Republican presidential contenders spent part of their Wednesday at a Univision event where the Spanish-language network co-hosted a "Meet the Candidates" forum.

In an interview there, Gingrich was asked what he would do to the Castro regime. Gingrich compared it to the U.S. intervention in Libya and U.S. support for the Arab Spring: "We're very prepared to back people in Libya. We may end up backing people in Syria. But now Cuba – hands off Cuba? That's baloney. The people of Cuba deserve freedom."

Mitt Romney went further. Speaking with the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC (political action committee), Romney said, "If I'm fortunate to become the next president of the United States, it is my expectation that [retired Cuban leader] Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet."

According to Hector Barajas, communications consultant to the California Republican Party, numbers show that Latino votes are critical. He said that there are about 344,000 Hispanic Republican voters registered in South Florida alone. He added that Republicans look to remind Latino voters that President Obama has failed to keep promises he made to their community, breaching trust by increasing deportations, for example.

Barajas went on to say that presidential hopefuls would be most effective if they targeted business issues. “Latinos are very entrepreneurial, as are Republicans. Everything about why Latinos come to this country is to find some sort of success for their family,” he said. “We are very community oriented, but within that community you have the son, you have the aunt, you have the grandmother, that are all working in the same business to help out that family.”

In ricocheting interviews, speeches and advertisements, the two men have also sparred over immigration issues, including "self-deportation" and the DREAM Act. Democratic political consultant Roger Salazar recognizes their attempts to address key issues, and noted Gingrich has taken a more moderate stance on immigration. Still, he went on to say that Republicans need to back up their words with their actions.

“You have a party that claims to be the one talking about self-reliance and pulling yourself up by your boot straps and working hard to get ahead,” he said. “You have [these] people opposed to the DREAM Act, which rewards the very behavior that Republicans say that they want.”

Salazar said that Republicans have been close to closure with Latino voters before, only to lose their trust by insulting them. “I don’t think the voters will forget that [Gingrich] was a fellow who said that ‘Spanish was the language of the ghetto,’” he said. Salazar added later that “this is a very diverse community, but one thing we have in common is that we don’t forget a slight.”

A new Quinnipac poll among Republican primary voters shows Gingrich has nearly caught up with Romney in the Sunshine State. Romney is at 36 percent, Gingrich at 34, with a margin of error of four points. Rick Santorum has 13 percent support and Ron Paul won 10 percent. Meanwhile, President Barack Obama was in Arizona taking his own swipes at the Republican immigration policy.


How much of the Latino vote is at play for November 2012? How crucial is it? What's your reaction to the feisty exchanges between Romney and Gingrich yesterday? How have the demographics changed in Florida and the rest of the country? How popular is Obama with Latinos?


Hector Barajas, Political Analyst for Univision & Communications consultant to the California Republican Party; Director of Strategic Communications, Revolvis Consulting based in Sacramento; Barajas joins us today from Miami, Florida

Roger Salazar, Democratic Political Consultant; Partner, Acosta Salazar Strategic Communications based in Sacramento

Leslie Berestein-Rojas, KPCC immigration reporter and blogger, writes the Multi-American blog on KPCC dot org.

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