Rick Santorum awaits an interview in Miami. He spoke to the Latino Builders… (Paul Sancya, AP )
MIAMI — Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich dueled for Florida's Latino voters as they raced across the state Friday -- with Romney netting the backing of Puerto Rico Gov. Luis G. Fortuno and Gingrich announcing his support for legislation allowing children brought into the country illegally to earn citizenship by joining the military.
The two men outlined their views on Latin American policy during back-to-back speeches before the Hispanic Leadership Network gathering in Miami-Dade County, where three-quarters of Republican voters are Latino. At Thursday night's debate in Jacksonville, Romney had pushed back fiercely against Gingrich's charge that his hard-line positions were "anti-immigrant."
Arguing that the Obama administration had placed too much emphasis on its economic ties to China, Europe and Russia -- to the detriment of Latin America -- Romney pledged to launch an initiative to bring American and Latin American business owners together within his first 100 days in office.
"This is a massive opportunity -- not of charity -- but of opportunity that will help lift both parts of the world," the former Massachusetts governor said to applause.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, January 30, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
U.S. treasurer: An article in Saturday's Section A about Republican presidential candidates seeking the Latino vote in Florida said former Treasury Secretary Rosario Marin had endorsed Newt Gingrich. Marin was the treasurer of the United States, not the Treasury secretary.
Gingrich, who touted his backing Friday by former Treasury Secretary Rosario Marin, argued in his speech that the president and past leaders had not devoted enough attention to Latin America.
"We continue to neglect this hemisphere. It is dangerous, it is foolish and we should have fundamentally different policies," the former House speaker said.
As they did in Thursday night's debate, both men focused on the contentious issue of illegal immigration. Gingrich pressed for his plan to ease the visa process, create a guest worker program and allow for legal residence for some longtime illegal immigrants who have deep ties to this nation.
Romney again adopted a softer tone on illegal immigration than he had in other early primary states.
He called for an immigration and guest worker policy that would conform to the needs of the business community, and for an effort to streamline the "maze of regulations" governing the legal immigration process, so those waiting to get into the U.S., for example, would be able to check a website showing their place in line and expected wait time to become U.S. citizens. He added that if elected, he did not plan to round people up and send them back to their home country in buses.
"We are not anti-immigrant; we are not anti-immigration," Romney said. "We are the pro-immigration, pro-legality, pro-citizenship nation and party."
Both men also made their strongest comments yet on the question of Puerto Rican statehood.
Hours before he was endorsed by Fortuno, a passionate advocate of statehood who campaigned with him in Orlando on Friday night, Romney drew wild cheers in Miami when he mentioned Puerto Rico's upcoming referendum on whether to seek statehood.
"I expect the people of Puerto Rico will decide, like Fortuno feels, that they want to become a state," Romney said, "and I can tell you that I will work with him 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 and, again, to create a model in the Caribbean -- one more model in Latin America of the benefits of having freedom."
Gingrich also offered qualified support. "The people of Puerto Rico have got to decide their future," he said. "I will not tell them what decision to make."
Gingrich and Romney, along with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are also battling for Cuban voters, a dominant force within Miami-Dade County. Romney won a standing ovation Friday in Miami when he said there was a time coming soon when "Cuba will be free" and that the U.S. needed to "get organized for it."
"We're going to have to recognize the people there want freedom, as people do all over the world, and America can't sit back," Romney said. "I will not only say something when Fidel Castro finally leaves this earth, I will do something. I will be behind the voices of freedom here and the voices of freedom there. We will help Cuba become free."
Gingrich faulted President Obama for paying more attention to the uprisings taking place in the Middle East than the potential for a similar uprising 90 miles off Florida's coast.
"He can't bring himself to look south," Gingrich said. "I would like a Cuban Spring in 2013 to help the people of Cuba liberate."
Santorum also courted the Latino vote in South Florida on Friday, playing up his humble roots and interest in Latin American policy in front of a crowd at the Latino Builders Assn. in a ballroom in downtown Miami. He also stopped by Versailles Restaurant, a magnet for politicians in Little Havana.
Playing up the fact that his grandfather was an immigrant and that his father was a civil servant, Santorum compared his background to that of members of the Cuban community, noting their beliefs in faith and freedom.
Santorum said that as president, he would spread free enterprise and American values throughout the hemisphere, "to be able to one day say that this entire hemisphere is free ... and that people can live their dreams consistent with their values."
Times staff writer Alana Semuels in Miami contributed to this report.