“Is he still the most anti-immigrant candidate?” My old pal Wolf Blitzer gave Newt Gingrich a perfect opportunity to bash Mitt Romney during Thursday night’s final debate before next Tuesday’s all-important Florida GOP primary.  “I think of the four of us, yes,” said the former Speaker of the House, unprepared for the vigorous rebuttal that followed.

“That is simply inexcusable,” said Romney, glaring down at the scrappy opponent who had risen from the ashes of an inept campaign to rout Romney in South Carolina. He continued, “Mr. Speaker I am not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales…the idea that I am anti-immigrant is repulsive.”

Gingrich fought back, saying that Romney was also guilty of misrepresentation when he accused Gingrich of calling Spanish the “language of the ghetto,” but he seemed to deflate in the face of Romney’s robust and obviously well-prepared counter-attack.

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Gone was the prospect that Gingrich could use Romney’s hard line on illegal immigration to appeal to Florida’s all-important Hispanic voters, a million and a half of them. The Speaker should have seen it coming, especially after the public scolding he received Wednesday from the Sunshine State’s Cuban-American golden boy Republican senator Marco Rubio. Neutral in the primary, Rubio went out of his way to blast a Gingrich attack ad that labeled Romney anti-immigrant, which Rubio said was, “inaccurate, inflammatory and doesn’t belong in the campaign.”

As Gingrich shrunk on that stage in Jacksonville Florida Thursday night, Romney seemed to grow taller. He was on a roll refusing to be defensive over his rejection of Gingrich’s call to cut undocumented immigrants some slack after they have been here for, say, a quarter century or more.

“Remember what we’re talking about in this whole conversation. We’re talking about grandfathers and grandmothers who have children and grandchildren. OK?” Gingrich tried to explain. “The idea that somebody would actually think about deporting grandfathers and grandmothers strikes me as fairly inhumane. That’s how the idea got developed.”

“I’m not going to find grandmothers and deport them,” Romney raged. “Those are your words not mine…and to use that rhetoric suggests to people that you are now willing to keep people here who have violated the law.”

Gingrich was out of bluster and out of luck with Florida’s Latino Republicans; one poll has him trailing Romney 49-17 among Cuban-Americans; which is too bad. Because Gingrich is the only one of the four Republicans left standing who has shown the slightest inclination to be compassionate and flexible on the difficult issue of dealing with the eleven plus million who are here illegally. 

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And he’s no Liberal on the issue.

His amnesty proposal is modest in the extreme. Gingrich proposes to allow undocumented immigrants, who have been here 25 years, be forgiven their trespass and be allowed to stay in this country; under certain conditions like family ties and a clean criminal record. After 25 years! By way of comparison, the federal statute of limitations for bank robbery is just five years.  It is testament to how warped our thinking is about illegal immigrants that we seem to fear and loathe them more than bank robbers.

People can have different opinions about illegal immigration, and most of my viewers and listeners disagree with mine; different folks, different strokes. But my beef with Romney on the issue of the undocumented is his hyperbole and his hypocrisy. He is unhelpful, suggesting no reforms other than more stringent enforcement. And he is opportunistic. In thousands of campaign events over the last five years he has never meaningfully spoken about the fact his father and grandfather were born in Mexico until he was faced with exposure by reporter Mike Taibbi on NBC News. He didn’t say a word about it in Iowa or New Hampshire until the day before the NBC piece aired. He didn’t mention it in South Carolina either, and chooses now to embrace his heritage at a time when it can pay a huge political dividend in Florida.

Regardless of whom the eventual GOP nominee is the almost unmentioned Barack Obama is going to re-capture the Sunshine State in 2012 as he did in 2008, and he is going to do it with a majority of the Latino vote. If I’m wrong come next November, send me a paper copy of this post and I’ll eat it.

On a slightly different, but no less Latino-themed topic from Thursday night’s debate, I thought Ron Paul made huge sense with his call for a normalization of relations with Castro’s Cuba. How can we have normal trade with once and possibly future enemies like China, Russia and even Vietnam, while continuing our Cold War embargo on Cuba?  I wish America could vote on that issue too.

Geraldo Rivera is a senior columnist for Fox News Latino.

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