Fresh off his resounding win in Saturday's South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich rolls into Florida this week hoping to ride his momentum to another victory over rival Mitt Romney in the Sunshine State, something that may rest on the support the former House Speaker receives from the state's Latino community.
More than 22 percent of Florida's population is Latino and, as the 2008 election indicated, their vote can determine the fate of the race. Four years ago Florida signaled the end of Romney's first bid for the GOP nomination after Sen. John McCain's victory there. Latinos that year opted for McCain over Romney by 54 percent to 14 percent, a decisive margin that proved too much for the former Massachusetts governor to overcome.
This year Gingrich will be hoping to inflict a similar blow on Romney. No Republican candidate has made more of an effort to appeal to Latinos than Gingrich - in fact, no other candidate has made much of an effort at all, a surprising development considering more than half the growth in the country's total population between 2000 and 2010 was due to the massive increase in the Hispanic population. That fact was not lost on Gingrich, however, and to date he has tried to court Republican Latinos, long before the primaries in Hispanic-heavy states like Florida and Nevada were up next on the calendar.
Gingrich Has More Moderate Immigration Platform
At a debate in Washington, D.C. last November, Gingrich outlined the most moderate immigration stance of all the candidates, saying that the government should not expel immigrants if they have laid down roots here - for instance, if they have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes, and obeying the law. While Gingrich does not think those undocumented immigrants should be granted full citizenship, he does think they should get legal status.
Compare that to Romney, who days before the Iowa caucuses vowed that if elected he would veto the DREAM Act, a bill that would provide a path to citizenship for some undocumented children of immigrants who attend college or serve in the military. Romney's stance infuriated some Latinos from Iowa to New Hampshire, who vowed not to vote for him. Juan Rodriguez, a businessman in Des Moines, said he would not support Romney due to the candidate's comments on immigration. Esteban Lopez, a Goffstown, NH, resident who will vote for the first time in the general election later this year, said he too would not back Romney.
"Newt is the only candidate who has had the courage to open the door to the issue of immigration like he did in the debates," said another Republican voter, German Ortiz from Manchester, NH.
Romney, meanwhile, became the target of DREAM Act protesters like Lucy Allain, a college student who now has a 4.0 GPA, but no path to citizenship.
"I'm undocumented," she said to Romney outside an event in New York City last week. "I want to know, then, why are you not supporting my dream?"
"Because if someone comes here illegally…," the former Massachusetts governor responded.
"But I didn't come here illegally," countered Lucy. "And I have a 4.0 GPA."
Florida Loss Ended Romney '08 Bid
If Latinos in Florida go for Gingrich over Romney by a wide margin, that could be enough to swing the state for the former House Speaker - and send Romney crashing to a second consecutive primary defeat, his third in the first four voting states. Two weeks ago in New Hampshire I asked Gingrich's daughter Kathy Lubbers if she believed that her father could overtake Romney as the race shifted south to the Hispanic hotbed of Florida.
"He has been working with and including the Hispanic community for seven, eight years," Lubbers told me. "We've had a Hispanic person leading the charge for us for multiple years on a variety of topics even before we were involved in this presidential campaign. We have a national Hispanic inclusion director, we have state directors, we have volunteer leadership, so we have a lot of people in place, probably more than any other candidate, so I'm hopeful that it actually comes to fruition. We'll just have to see if that plays the way we're hoping it does because it's part of the heart of the campaign, so it'd be very sad if it doesn't."
Florida Has Different Latino Makeup, Emphasis on Cuba
But a fact that should not be lost on anyone is that Latinos in Florida are not the same as Latinos in Nevada, Colorado or Arizona. Most Florida Hispanics hail from Cuba and Puerto Rico, not Mexico. Around 540,000 of the state's 1.5 million Latino voters are of Cuban origin, a group mostly based near Miami. Romney has work to do with the Cuban population, which favored McCain by 52 percent to 13 percent in 2008. To that end, Romney has secured the support of a slew of key Florida Republicans with Cuban roots, such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
However, the most coveted Cuban-American endorsement in the Republican race is Sen. Marco Rubio, widely expected to be one of the top candidates for the number-two slot on the eventual Republican ticket. Rubio, a Cuban-American elected to the Senate in 2010, enjoys widespread backing among the Cuban community in south Florida. He has said he will not endorse, but will campaign for his party's eventual nominee.
While some of Romney's Cuban-American backers in Congress differ with him on his DREAM Act opposition, Cubans tend to see the immigration issue in a different light than other Latinos. Cuban immigrants are granted sanctuary in the United States if they reach the country, making them immune to Republican policies that have little tolerance for undocumented immigrants here. An illegal immigrant from Mexico, for instance, would be thrown out of the country if Romney's immigration policies were implemented. Rubio, for instance, opposes giving amnesty to undocumented workers.
Puerto Ricans constitute the second-largest faction of Florida Latinos, numbering around 480,000. Like Cubans, Puerto Ricans do not have the same immigration concerns that the other Latinos have. And they are becoming more and more crucial - the Puerto Rican population has nearly doubled in the past decade. In recent elections, they have wavered from side to side - they supported Rubio as well as the state's former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, but backed Obama in 2008. Bush, like Rubio, has yet to endorse.
In recent weeks Romney has stepped up his bid to appeal to Florida Latinos. Earlier this month the Republican hopeful on Wednesday hit the airwaves in Florida with a Spanish-language ad entitled "Nosotros," meaning "us." The ad featured appearances from Romney's all-star line-up of Cuban-American backers.
If Romney is to avoid a repeat occurrence of 2008, winning the Latino vote - or at least not losing as decisively as he did four years ago - is crucial. But despite his organizational strength and his impressive war chest, Romney faces an uphill battle with Latinos, against a surging opponent with no shortage of confidence. The two rivals, along with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, will go toe-to-toe at two debates this coming week, first in Tampa on Monday night, then in Jacksonville on Thursday.
Expect to hear a lot about Latinos - and the issues that matter most to them - at those debates. After all, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc could determine who wins Florida's primary and, in doing so, the Republican nomination overall.
Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News & Univision.