MIAMI — The close, volatile Republican presidential campaign exploded in Miami's Cuban-American community on Wednesday as Newt Gingrich pulled a controversial Spanish-language immigration ad after Sen. Marco Rubio bashed it as out of bounds.
The radio ad, featuring a snippet of a Fidel Castro line, described Mitt Romney as "anti-immigrant" for his hard-line stances, which mirror those of Rubio and many Republican leaders.
"This kind of language is more than just unfortunate. It's inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign," Rubio told The Miami Herald when asked about the ad. He is neutral in the GOP presidential race.
"The truth is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant," the Florida Republican said. "Both are pro-legal immigration, and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community."
The unexpected criticism from the nation's leading Hispanic Republican underscored the difficulties of campaigning on immigration in Miami's Cuban-exile community, which accounts for just under three-quarters of the Republican vote in the largest county of the nation's largest swing state.
A new poll of Florida Latinos shows Gingrich losing badly to Romney among them, though they're virtually tied among all Republicans statewide. Both trail President Barack Obama by double digits.
After Rubio's criticism, Gingrich's campaign said it would pull the ad out of "respect" for Rubio, who is considered a possible running mate for both candidates. His campaign then announced it would edit out the "anti-immigrant" line and re-run the ad.
Romney called the ad "Outrageous. Outrageous. My dad was born in Mexico, came here at age 5. It's an outrageous charge from Newt Gingrich. I'm pro-immigration. I'm pro-legal immigration."
Gingrich earlier defended the ad's language in an interview with the Miami CBS affiliate. Gingrich specifically took exception with Romney's call at a Monday debate for people to deport themselves if they're here illegally.
"I think he's amazingly insensitive to the realities of the immigrant community — his whole concept of self-deportation," Gingrich said. "I've not met anyone who thinks it's in touch with reality. People aren't going to self-deport."
But his own spokesman had told a New Hampshire paper that, as a consequence of Gingrich's immigration plan, "it's likely the vast majority of them (illegal immigrants) would self-deport."
The Florida race is almost dead even — 36 percent for Romney, 34 percent for Gingrich — according to two new polls from Quinnipiac University and CNN-Time. The polls indicated Gingrich was surging after winning South Carolina's primary on Saturday, but most of the polling was done before Monday night's Florida debate, when Romney mounted a sharp attack on Gingrich.
Romney, too, found himself the target of his own words on the Florida campaign trail, where he has attacked Gingrich as an "influence peddler" because he was paid as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which is implicated in the housing crash and foreclosure crisis gripping one in every 360 Florida homes.
Turns out, some of Romney's campaign advisers were lobbyists for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to the Associated Press and the Daily Caller conservative website.
Also, AP and the Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century pointed out that one of Romney's investments yielded $500,000 from Fannie Mae.
Romney said there's "absolutely" bipartisan blame for the housing crisis, which started during the presidency of George W. Bush.
"Part of it was Republicans. Part of it was Democrats," Romney said. "This idea that everybody has to own a home — that we're going to give mortgages to people who can't pay them back — that is a primary reason that we got in the economic stress that occurred within the housing market."
Later, at an event in Brevard, Gingrich was asked about Romney surrogate John McCain's criticism of him.
"What you have right now is the entire establishment in panic mode, running and saying whatever comes to their mind next," Gingrich said.
He said that the Romney campaign attacks on his ties to Freddie Mac were "so funny" because "your candidate has a Swiss bank account, he has Cayman Islands accounts. He owns stock in Fannie and Freddie. ... One of his senior advisers is another lobbyist for Freddie Mac. ... Someone who stands up and says, 'Let me attack you on Freddie Mac, and oh by the way, I didn't tell you I own stock.'"
That line elicited criticism from the conservative Club for Growth, which said Gingrich was demonizing wealth. Gingrich also caught grief from liberals as well Wednesday, when hecklers tried to shout him down at a Wings Plus rally in Coral Springs.
A few weeks ago, Gingrich was accused of sounding like a Democrat when he bashed Romney's time leading Bain Capital, a private-equity firm that had profited from restructuring companies and sometimes laid people off.
Democrats and liberals have tried to paint the Republican candidates as anti-immigrant or even anti-Hispanic for opposing legislation such as the DREAM Act, which provides a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants — mainly college students and members of the military.
Rubio, who frets that the DREAM Act gives too much "amnesty" to a broader class of immigrants, and other Republicans, have accused Democrats of playing rank ethnic politics. So when Gingrich's radio spot described Romney as "the most anti-immigrant candidate," Rubio and others felt he not only crossed the line, he also was adopting liberal criticism.
On one hand, Rubio's criticism could hurt Gingrich among some undecided voters. But voters like Angelo Truglio, 68, are wary of what they see as the "establishment" support for Romney.
"They've been pushing him for so long, I got tired of him," Truglio said. "I like Newt, he's got the fight in him."
Gingrich began running his Spanish-language radio ad last week. It begins in shocking fashion by playing an excerpt of Fidel Castro repeating his trademark line: "Patria o muerte, venceremos!" — Fatherland or death, we shall overcome.
Romney in 2007 had mistakenly associated the Castro line with a call for a free Cuba during a speech. Some in the crowd of the Cuban-exile community were aghast.
"Unlike Romney, who uses statements from Castro, Newt Gingrich has fought against the regime," the ad says, noting that Gingrich has long held conservative positions on Castro's Cuba.
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