Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich Pressed on Puerto Rico Statehood in South Florida

Matt Rourke/AP Photo

ABC News' Matthew Jaffe, Emily Friedman and Elicia Dover report:

MIAMI - Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were pressed today about their positions on Puerto Rican statehood at a gathering of Latino Republicans in Miami as the GOP candidates spar for Hispanic support in the final days before Florida's Tuesday primary.

A cadre of Puerto Ricans attending the Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) conference were peeved that the issue of statehood was given short shrift during Thursday night's CNN debate in Jacksonville, which was co-sponsored by HLN. Elizabeth Cuevas-Neunder, appearing from here in Miami, asked the candidates Thursday night about Puerto Rico's statehood, but the question went unanswered by all but one GOP candidate before moderator Wolf Blitzer moved on to other topics.

Cuevas-Neunder, the CEO of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce in Florida, was front and center at the conference today when Gingrich noted that the question was "one that unfortunately was not covered very well last night and I regret that Wolf Blitzer did not turn and ask the rest of us."

"I have had a firm position on the right of the Puerto Rican people to have a referendum," Gingrich said to applause. "I am not dictating the outcome of the referendum because there are several options and the Puerto Rican people have to make that decision.

"But I think they have every right and I support their right to have a referendum to decide on statehood or not and that is something which I would actively support as their right to have a referendum and then, as every other state has, to negotiate the process of accession if that's what the people of Puerto Rico want to do," he added.

Enter Cuevas-Neunder.

"Mr. Speaker, I am the lady of the question," she said, standing up in the front of the audience. "Our Puerto Ricans have given more men and women to the United States Armed Forces than any other state in the union. We have 4 million Puerto Ricans in the United States who are voters. We have 52 percent of our children who are in poverty. The question is very simple; You want our vote, yes or no?"

"The question is do you believe that we are able to be a state or not? Simple."

"I just said what I believe and if you don't like it, I am sorry we disagree," Gingrich replied. "I believe the people of Puerto Rico should make the decision.

"What I'm telling you is if the people of Puerto Rico make the decision that they want to be a state," Gingrich continued to applause from the crowd, "I will work actively to help them negotiate the process of accession to the United States, but the people of Puerto Rico have to decide their future. I would welcome them if they make the decision, but I will not tell them what decision they should make."

An hour later, Romney addressed the issue in his remarks at the conference, receiving a warmer response from the crowd, including from Cuevas-Neunder, who stood and applauded the former Massachusetts governor.

"I'm looking forward to the time when the people of Puerto Rico make their decision about becoming a state," he said as the audience cheered. "Wow, we've got some friends here.

"I think it's in November you're having a referendum and I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide that they want to become a state and I can tell you that I will work with [Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno] to make sure that if that vote comes out in favor of statehood, that we will go through the process in Washington to provide statehood to Puerto Rico."

That's further than he went with Univision's Jorge Ramos Wednesday, when he said "my choice is to let them make their choice."

Statehood is a controversial issue among Puerto Ricans and not all support the idea. Others believe it should become independent or remain a commonwealth. But many Puerto Rican voters in the United States back statehood, including many who live in Florida. Puerto Rican voters are the second-largest Latino voting bloc in the Sunshine State, with about 420,000 living here, heavily concentrated around the crucial I-4 corridor in central Florida. And Puerto Ricans tend to be a swing constituency, backing Obama in 2008 and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in 2010, meaning they could play a critical role in the state's Jan. 31 primary and in the general election later.

In the most recent Latino Decisions poll conducted for ABC News and Univision News, Puerto Rican Republicans in Florida favor Romney over Gingrich by 22 percent to 12 percent. Gingrich fares even worse among registered Cuban-Americans here - the state's largest Latino group - trailing Romney 49 percent to 17 percent.

"We have a lot of support within the Latino community," Gingrich said at a news conference before his speech at the event. "I'm encouraged by all that's happening."

Gingrich was asked why he supports only the military component of the DREAM Act, not the scholastic one - the bill would enable some children of undocumented immigrants to have a path to citizenship if they serve in the military or attend college.

"I think the American people are very prepared to allow someone to earn citizenship by serving this country," Gingrich said. "I think it's harder to get Americans to agree that the simple act of going to school achieves the same thing."

Romney, for his part, touched in his remarks on the drug problems plaguing Latin America and, therefore, affecting this country, too.

"One of the things I will do in my first 100 days of my presidency is form a hemispheric task force, bringing nations together that are willing to become part of this to look at these issues," Romney said. "There are a number of places that drugs are now being brought from. Puerto Rico is one of those now that is being used. Given the fact that there is more difficulty getting through the Mexico border, people are looking at Puerto Rico as a place to bring drugs into the United States and from there into Florida. We need to be far more vigilant in looking at the cross border implications of crime.

"We have got to do a much better of job communicating to our children in this country whether they are Hispanic or not Hispanic that drugs are causing deaths around the world," he continued. "Our young people have a great deal of concern. They're a very humanitarian people, they are concerned with issues like global warming and things of that nature, and they're concerned about humanity.

"I hope they understand if they take one of these drugs that are being smuggled into this country they are partially responsible for deaths. I want them to understand the tens of thousands of people who are being killed by virtue of drug use in this country. It's time for the United States of America to take responsibility for the pain and suffering and torture and murder that's going on throughout Latin America. We are not a good example in that regard and that must change. If I'm president, I will campaign in a very aggressive way to our young people, 'Stop taking drugs because you're killing people.'"