Newt Gingrich's Outreach Toward Latinos Yields Little in Failed White House Bid

PHOTO: Newt GingrichPlayAndrew Burton/Getty Images
WATCH Newt Gingrich Breaks With Party on Immigration

Whether he wants to admit it, Newt Gingrich's bid for the Republican presidential nomination is over. More than halfway through the primary, all he has to show for his efforts is a mere two states won, atrocious poll numbers, growing debt and an alarming disconnect from reality as evidenced by his far-fetched notion that he could win a contested GOP convention this summer.

For Latinos, Gingrich's fall from grace -- if you can call it that -- might have more of an impact than, say, the demise of Rep. Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain. Of all the Republican hopefuls, Gingrich speaker made the most serious overtures to Latinos, something that earned him support from Iowa to New Hampshire to Florida, but ultimately, not enough to make a difference.

The former House Speaker from Georgia first stood out from his rivals at a debate in November in Washington, D.C., when he outlined a far more moderate approach to illegal immigration than any of his top opponents, especially front-runner Mitt Romney. If immigrants have been here for a quarter of a century, raising a family, paying taxes, and obeying the law, Gingrich said, the government should not expel them. He voiced support for granting such undocumented immigrants legal status, but not full citizenship and a temporary guest-worker program for undocumented individuals in the United States.

"I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century," he said. "I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so that they are not separated from their families."

And take heat he did, with his opponents, such as Romney, quickly denouncing Gingrich's approach as "amnesty." A poll taken shortly before the debate by Univision and Latino Decisions revealed that registered Republican voters were split on the issue of the assimilation model or the criminal model. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans responded that they were more likely to back a candidate who supported the latter, while 35 percent supported the former, a statistically insignificant difference.

In the weeks that followed, though, numerous Latinos said in a series of interviews that they preferred Gingrich's immigration stance to Romney's. In Iowa, Juan Rodriguez, a businessman from Des Moines, said he would support Gingrich in the state's January 3 caucuses because "if there's no immigration reform, we are going to be very effected."

Enrique Pena-Velasco, a Colombian who came to the United States 31 years ago and now resides in Winterset, Iowa, said he too would back Gingrich because the immigration positions of other candidates had turned him off "in a big way."

"The other candidates have made a mistake in ignoring us completely," said Velasco, who attended a small briefing that Gingrich held late last year for members of the Latino community in Des Moines. "They forget that, nationally, we are strong in numbers and we play a key role when it comes to the actual general elections."

In New Hampshire, Latinos told a similar story. Outside a town hall event that Gingrich held for Latinos in Manchester, German Ortiz pointed out that "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."

In Goffstown, Esteban Lopez said he was inclined to support Gingrich as well.

After hearing months of inflammatory rhetoric -- from Cain joking that he would build an electric fence along the Mexican border to Romney touting the endorsement of anti-immigration activist Kris Kobach -- Latinos relished the outreach from Gingrich. But the Hispanic population in Iowa is around 5 percent and in New Hampshire under 3 percent. Gingrich finished fourth in both states.

Gingrich's daughter, Kathy Lubbers, predicted better days ahead for her father, who represented a Georgia congressional district, as the race shifted South. She was right. Gingrich surged to a huge victory in South Carolina and, suddenly, he had a golden opportunity to overtake Romney in Florida, where Latinos make up 13.1 percent of the state's 11.2 million registered voters.

"He has been working with and including the Hispanic community for seven, eight years," Lubbers said. "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."

At the final debate before Florida's primary, Gingrich wasted no time in attacking Romney on immigration, calling him the most anti-immigrant candidate in the race. Romney fought back, calling Gingrich's characterization "inexcusable."

"The idea that I'm anti-immigrant is repulsive," Romney said.

Vilma Lacayo, a Republican voter in Miami, was impressed by Gingrich's "compassion" for Latinos.

"I think that Gingrich has a more flexible position, more open towards immigration," Lacayo said. "You have to have that type of compassion with people. You have to have it as president, not just in this case, but in many situations that he will face. He has to act that way.

"The more I'm listening to Gingrich, the more he seems presidential," she concluded as the debate wound down. "I look at the way he handles issues in general. I look at his experience. He knows about everything. He's winning my vote."

Unfortunately for Gingrich, most Latinos in Florida are of Cuban or Puerto Rican descent, so when it comes to the issue of immigration they do not have the same interest or fears that immigrants from Mexico or Central America have. In addition, Gingrich, 68, came to Florida fresh off his campaign through South Carolina when he praised the Palmetto State's controversial new immigration law, which would make traffic police contact federal immigration officials if they suspect someone to be in the country illegally.

"South Carolinians have actually passed a law that I think is a pretty reasonable law," Gingrich said.

If the unique makeup of Florida Latinos and Gingrich's support for South Carolina's law didn't help the former House Speaker's case any, then Romney's relentless attacks really left him reeling. All told, Romney and his allies spent more than $15 million on ads in Florida, and all but one of those ads was negative.

"If you don't have a positive message about your work, you have to go negative because there's nothing else to say," Lubbers said, sighing.

Romney cruised to an easy win in the Jan. 31 primary, bolstered by the support of Florida's sizable Cuban population. Gingrich's bid was left in disarray and he would not win again until his Super Tuesday victory in his native state of Georgia, a triumph that hardly even mattered at that point.

Ultimately, while Gingrich's immigration stance won him some support from Latinos, it was not nearly enough to make him a serious contender in the GOP primary. Now it's all over for him, even if he refuses to read the writing on the wall. He cut his staff by one-third this week, replaced his campaign manager, and drastically reduced his travel.

"Clearly we are going to have to go on a fairly tight budget to get from here to Tampa," he said Tuesday of the Republican National Convention in August. "But I think we can do it."

In reality, however, he can't. Voters simply don't like him. A CNN poll released this week showed that 60 percent of Republicans want Gingrich to exit the race. Gingrich's campaign is now left to wonder how Romney will fare among Latinos in a general election showdown against President Obama.

Sylvia Garcia, a Gingrich spokeswoman, said Romney has "completely changed his message" toward Latinos during the primary and will "have to answer very tough questions from the Latino community if he becomes the candidate."

"It completely surprises me that other candidates don't realize how important Hispanic inclusion is in their success in beating Obama," she said last week. "Thinking that, after all they have said in this Republican campaign, it will be forgotten in the general election is plain naïve."

That is a stance that Democrats are now emphasizing as an Obama-Romney matchup looms this fall.

"As part of his failed attempt to close the deal with Republican voters during the primary, Romney went even further to the right and further away from the priorities of the Latino community," Texas state Rep. Joaquin Castro said Tuesday. "The result is one Romney might come to regret: He is locked into his extreme positions and Republicans have seriously undercut their chances of making inroads with the Latino vote."

A January poll conducted by Latino Decisions for Univision and ABC News revealed the bridges with Latinos burned by Republicans during the past year's bitter fight for the party's nomination: a whopping 72 percent of Latinos said the GOP primary candidates either don't care too much about Latinos or are being outright hostile toward Latinos.

If any of the candidates were not hostile toward them, it was Gingrich, but now he is nothing more than an afterthought.

Matthew Jaffe is covering the 2012 campaign for ABC News and Univision.