Before the ballots are even cast in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich is battling Mitt Romney for Latino voters in Florida with radio ads linking him to Communist dictators and saying he is anti-immigrant.
Romney's campaign is pushing back, telling Fox News Latino on Friday that Gingrich's message to Latinos about its candidate is "false" and "ridiculous."
Gingrich, who recently made a stop in South Florida, where he met with Cuban exiles, is airing ads that tell listeners that Romney a few years ago borrowed from a phrase from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
The ad opens with the phrase "Fatherland or Death, we will prevail," which uttered by Castro in Spanish said: "Patria o muerte, venceremos!"
"Unlike Romney, who uses statements from Castro, Newt Gingrich has fought against the regime with Lincoln and Ileana to approve Helms-Burton," the ad says in Spanish, referring to two Florida GOP Cuban-American members of Congress. "He supported the formation of Radio and TV Marti; and is in favor of holding the Castro brothers accountable for the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes."
For Latinos who may care more about the immigration issue than about U.S.-Cuba policy, the ad warns that former Massachusetts Gov. Romney is "the most anti-immigrant candidate."
"In contrast," it says, "Newt Gingrich is a candidate that has committed himself to the Hispanic community -- a Republican similar to Ronald Reagan, with experience."
Romney's campaign shot back Friday, telling Fox News Latino that some of Florida's leading proponents in Congress of a democratic Cuba have endorsed Romney because of his commitment to freedom in the hemisphere.
“This ad is false and full of ridiculous claims," said Alberto Martinez, a Romney spokesman. "Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart all stand with Mitt Romney because he has laid out a clear vision for spreading democracy in our hemisphere."
"By attacking anyone who supports common-sense border security and immigration reforms as ‘anti-immigrant,’ Newt Gingrich is once again reading from Barack Obama’s liberal talking points.”
Latinos gave the bulk of their support to Barack Obama in 2008. Republicans have been trying to appeal to their growing disillusionment with Obama -- over the economy and record number of deportations -- to persuade them to shift their support to the GOP challenger.
Hispanics could swing the presidential race in states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. Nationally, 12.2 million Hispanics are expected to vote in 2012, a 26 percent increase over 2008.
Romney last week launched a Spanish-language television ad, in which his son, in flawless Spanish, tells viewers that his father believes in the American Dream and will make sure that the United States remains a land of opportunity.
But news about Romney's Latino-targeted outreach found itself overshadowed by his controversial embrace of an endorsement by immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, the architect of some of the strictest state immigration measures.
Kobach, who is the Kansas Secretary of State, authored measures that lay the groundwork for the immigration laws of such states as Arizona and Alabama.
Asked during a debate Monday held by Fox News whether his preference for tough immigration measures would alienate Latinos, Romney said: "Look, I want people to know I love legal immigration. Almost all of us in this room are descendants of immigrants or are immigrants ourselves."
"Our nation is stronger and more vibrant by virtue of a strong legal immigration system," Romney said. "But to protect our legal immigration system we have got to protect our borders and stop the flood of illegal immigration and I will not do anything that opens up another wave of illegal immigration."
Gingrich has said that he supports allowing undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States 25 years and stayed out of trouble with the police a chance to work legally in this country. Romney attacked him for that, saying Gingrich was supporting "amnesty."
Gingrich, however, has also supported a hard-line on many aspects of immigration. He has said, for instance, that he supports the tough immigration laws that passed in Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina, as well as other states. Those laws make it a criminal offense to be in the United States illegally, and give local police the authority to check immigration status if they suspect that someone they've stopped or detained for another reason is in the country illegally.
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed lawsuits over such state laws, saying that immigration is a federal matter. The officials of those states argue that they were forced to develop their own immigration laws because the federal government has failed to control illegal immigration.
Gingrich's ad apparently seeks to cover the diverse Latino electorate -- those who are affected by immigration policies, and Cuban-Americans, many of whom closely watch a candidate's position on Cuba and the Castro regime.
Recently, Gingrich stopped by a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami and pledged to be tough against the regime and to pursue freedom on the island.
In a written statement quoted by The Boston Herald, Gingrich said that he would implement the Helms-Burton Act that he helped pass in 1996 to allow people to sue "foreign entities that traffic in U.S. property."
"And he said the United States should lift no sanctions until Cuba transitions to a democracy," the newspaper said. "He also wants to require the U.S. Justice Department to 'reassess' the possibility of indicted Fidel and Raul Castro for the 1996 shoot down and 'murder' of the Brothers to the Rescue activists."
Before the Gingrich ad, The Boston Herald ran a story about how Romney had mistakenly associated Fidel Castro’s trademark slogan "Patria o muerte, venceremos! " with a free Cuba, and wrongly attributed it to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"Clearly, that’s something he was ill-advised on or didn’t do his homework on,” said Hialeah City Council President Esteban Bovo in a published report. “When you get cute with slogans, you get yourself into a trap.”
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente