MIAMI — The Republican presidential rivals courted influential Hispanic voters in South Florida on Friday with promises to improve immigration laws and focus on Latin America, as a new poll suggested that Mitt Romney is regaining his edge in the first mega-state to deliver a decision.
A survey by Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University — conducted less than a week before voters go to the polls — found Romney leading the once-surging Newt Gingrich by 38 percent to 29 percent in what's become a two-man race, though former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum picked up the endorsement of the Latin Builders Association after he and Gingrich spoke to the group.
Romney got a boost Friday night, when Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno endorsed the former Massachusetts governor at a raucous rally at an Orlando manufacturing plant.
Fortuno stood on the stage with Romney, surrounded by about 600 people. "I am honored to be here tonight, standing next to a principled leader, someone who has been tested over and over again," he said.
"That is why tonight I endorse Mitt Romney for president of the United States. We need a principled leader with experience in Washington again."
Romney beamed. "This is huge," he said.
Romney and Gingrich appeared hours apart before a crowd at the center-right Hispanic Leadership Network, where Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., preceded them onstage. They largely refrained from the sharp attacks that have defined the campaign, though they continued to disagree on what to do with the estimated 11 million people who live in the U.S. illegally.
He told the group hours before the Fortuno endorsement that he hoped Puerto Ricans would follow the governor’s lead and vote for statehood for the island.
Without mentioning a Gingrich attack ad that the campaign withdrew after complaints from Rubio, Romney sought to defend himself from the ad’s accusation that he was “anti-immigrant.
“We are not anti-immigrant. We are not anti-immigration,” said Romney, who called the suggestion “repulsive” Thursday night as he aggressively hit back at Gingrich during a debate. “We are the pro-immigration, pro-legality, pro-citizenship nation."
He and Gingrich clashed sharply at the debate, but Romney appeared to be riding a wave from his pull-no-punches performance, and he appeared relaxed and jovial Friday before the Hispanic group, which gave him several sustained rounds of applause and a standing ovation when he pledged to “help Cuba become free."
He also said he'd appoint a presidential envoy responsible for democracy and freedom in Latin America.
He defended his call for those who are in the U.S. illegally to be given a temporary status and then return to their home countries to apply for citizenship.
“Other people call that self-deportation," he said, adding, "We're not going to go out and round up people in buses and send them home."
Gingrich sought to draw a line of distinction, saying he had a “big disagreement with Gov. Romney." Gingrich, who'd mocked Romney's mention of "self-deportation" at a debate Monday in Tampa, said "a very significant number" of "young, unattached" undocumented immigrants would go back to their countries and apply for a guest-worker program under Romney’s proposal.
"Self-deportation in fact works for those groups," he admitted, but not for everyone. “The idea that a grandmother is not going to be supported, the idea that she's going to self-deport ... this is not a solution."
With Hispanics one of the fastest-growing voting blocs, some Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, have cautioned against harsh anti-immigration rhetoric. Gingrich acknowledged that he didn’t think sweeping immigration change is possible, given the failures of previous Republican and Democratic administrations.
Such legislation, he said, would face “too many enemies."
He told the Hispanic Leadership Network hours before the endorsement that he hoped Puerto Ricans would follow Fortuno’s lead and vote for statehood for the island.
Santorum, along with his traditional stump-speech pledges to lower taxes and roll back Obama regulations, told the story of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in Pennsylvania coal mines until he was 72.
"Those were the hands that dug freedom for me in America," he said, praising Miami's Cuban-American community for its "passion for freedom."
Santorum then vowed to take a hard line against any alliance between Iran and Venezuela, which he described as "Cuba Part B." Though he's lagging in the polls, Santorum's speech won over the builders’ board.
"We are most interested in supporting a candidate that is going to reinvigorate the economy," said Bernie Navarro, the Latin Builders Association's president.
Romney pursued a two-track strategy Friday. While he engaged President Barack Obama over policy and refrained from sharp criticism of his rivals, surrogates went on the attack.
Florida’s Bush blasted Gingrich for criticizing Romney's hiring of former Gov. Charlie Crist's staffers, calling it “ridiculous.” Crist left the GOP to run as an independent against Rubio in 2010. Rubio won.
“That’s not a serious accusation,” Bush told National Review Online about Gingrich's charges. “Candidates win elections. I’m not a big Charlie Crist fan, as you recall, but these guys shouldn’t have that moniker attached to them, as if Gov. Romney is part of some evil plot. That’s ridiculous.”
Gingrich accused Romney on Thursday of outsourcing his criticism.
“If you notice, he does all of his work, everything which is negative, he does by hiring people. He’s used to the idea of hiring people, as much as he’s used to firing people,” Gingrich said.
At the sprawling Villages retirement community north of Orlando — a favorite stumping ground for the GOP — Arizona Sen. John McCain repeated his criticism that Gingrich “encouraged” the spread of earmarks as House speaker, the projects that lawmakers can insert into spending bills.
"I knew Newt Gingrich," McCain told about 300 people. "We had a strong conflict at the time, it was over earmarks. What took place in the '90s after we Republicans got the majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate was disgraceful.
"Earmarks are the gateway to corruption. We ended up with members of Congress in federal prison because of this practice, and it was Newt Gingrich as speaker who encouraged these earmarks, and that's not what the Republican party is all about."
Former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Calif., was sentenced to prison in 2006 after he included earmarks in defense spending bills that provided projects for campaign contributors.
Gingrich told reporters Wednesday that he had “no idea” what McCain was talking about. “Earmarks go back to the beginning of the country,” he said. “I reject it. There’s no evidence I know at any point that anything corrupt was done.
“McCain is for Romney. What you have right now is the entire establishment in panic mode.”
But the latest poll by Quinnipiac University suggests that Romney, who has more money than Gingrich and has been able to hammer him in a series of attack ads, is opening up a considerable lead over Gingrich.
The poll Tuesday through Thursday of 580 likely Republican primary voters had Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 14 percent, followed by former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum at 12 percent. It has a margin of error of 4.1 percentage points.
(The Miami Herald's Mazzei reported from Miami, Clark from Jacksonville and Lightman from Lake County, all in Florida. Scott Hiaasen of The Miami Herald contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY