Republican presidential rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sought support from diverse groups of Republican voters in Florida as they entered the final weekend of campaigning before the Jan. 31 primary.
The candidates traveled across the state yesterday, courting Jewish and Hispanic voters, while the campaigns intensified attacks against each other.
Romney’s campaign organized national security aides who served under former President Ronald Reagan to paint Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, as an unreliable ally on defense. A Gingrich-aligned veteran of Reagan’s tenure said Romney was “on the wrong side of the Republican Party.”
Romney has taken a more aggressive posture as he seeks to blunt Gingrich’s challenge for the party nomination in a state that represents the most diverse electorate so far of the primary campaign.
A poll of 580 likely Republican primary voters released yesterday by Hamden, Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University shows Romney pulling away from Gingrich, 38 percent to 29 percent, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points. A Quinnipiac poll released Jan. 25 put Romney only two points in the lead.
The Florida primary increased in importance after earlier Republican contests in three states produced three different winners.
Competing for the state’s Hispanic voters, Gingrich, 68, and Romney, 64, both spoke yesterday in Miami to the Hispanic Leadership Network, a pro-Republican group. Hispanics make up roughly a 10th of registered Republicans in Florida.
Before Gingrich addressed the group, his campaign released a letter from 19 Hispanic leaders who said Romney has “not provided a real solution on behalf of the 12+ million immigrants who live in the shadows of the American communities.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and business executive, stressed his support of “legal immigration” and pushed for expanded trade.
“Trade between two nations in which they each trade products and services at which they excel raises the standard of living of both nations,” he told the Hispanic leaders.
Romney also said he would support going “through the process in Washington to provide statehood in Puerto Rico” if the U.S. territory passes a referendum for such a change.
Support from Governor
After the speech, Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuno, a Republican, pledged his support for Romney.
While Romney generally avoided direct attacks on his rival yesterday, he took a veiled swipe at Gingrich’s proposal to establish a colony on the moon -- a plan his rivals have described as a waste of federal funds -- during an afternoon stop at Cape Canaveral.
“In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I’d come here and promise hundreds of billions of dollars,” Romney told a few hundred supporters gathered in a space operations warehouse. “I know that’s something that’s very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”
Hundreds of miles south, Gingrich worked to win support from Florida’s Jewish community.
At a Republican Jewish Coalition rally -- where some of the crowd of 400 were wearing pins reading “Obama, Oy Vey!” -- Gingrich won applause by calling Iran the “biggest existential threat to the United States” and criticizing the Obama White House for a foreign policy of “appeasement.”
Florida’s Jewish Population
Florida’s Jewish population of 640,000 is more than any state except for New York and California, according to the North American Jewish Data Bank.
“There is no legitimate historical question about the right of Jews to be in Israel,” Gingrich said, delivering the biggest applause line of his 24-minute speech.
As Romney and Gingrich sought votes, their campaigns dispatched allies to tarnish the other’s credibility and conservative credentials.
Targeting Gingrich, former Navy Secretary John Lehman said on a conference call arranged by Romney’s campaign that the 20- year former House member’s “leadership has always been very erratic on virtually all subjects, but especially in defense, and we cannot have an erratic leader in these perilous times.”
Some of the former Reagan officials cited March 1986 remarks Gingrich gave in which they said he sharply criticized Reagan’s approach to the Cold War.
“If Newt has shown one thing, he does not have good judgment,” said Gerald Carmen, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “Who in the world would ever trust the United States to Newt’s judgment?”
In a dueling call for reporters run by the Gingrich camp, former Reagan National Security adviser Robert McFarlane said the Georgian was a “reliable voice” and “enthusiastic supporter” on Reagan’s defense agenda.
“Romney’s on the wrong side of the Republican Party,” Reagan biographer Craig Shirley said. “He is from the moderate, establishment, elitist part of the party.”
The competing surrogates highlighted the sharpening rivalry between the leading Republican contenders after Romney assailed Gingrich in a Jan. 26 televised debate for his campaign tactics and rhetoric.
Working to rebound from Romney’s performance, Gingrich’s campaign announced plans to air a television ad in Florida suggesting Romney was dishonest in his criticisms of Gingrich.
“What kind of man would mislead, distort, and deceive just to win an election?” the narrator of the advertisement says. “This man would be Mitt Romney.”
It disputes Romney’s claim in the debate that he had always voted Republican when he had the chance, citing his 1992 primary vote for Democratic presidential candidate Paul Tsongas when former President George H.W. Bush was vying with Pat Buchanan for the Republican nomination.
As the two front-runners tangled, Republican candidate Rick Santorum took a break from Florida campaigning and returned home to West Chester, Pennsylvania, to do his taxes.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he would return to the competition after he prepared his returns for public release.
“I’m coming back within 24 hours, and I’m here through up to Election Day,” he said in an interview with Fox News. “I’ve spent every minute here in Florida, and I’m going to work in Florida.”
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