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Fresh from a confident debate performance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was jaunty as he campaigned at the Hispanic Leadership Network's lunch in Miami on Friday. (AP)

Heading Into Final Fla. Swing., GOP Candidates Keep Courting Latino Voters

Jan 27, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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Fresh from Thursday night's debate, the two leading Republican presidential candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, traveled across Florida on Friday.

Gingrich and Romney spent the morning in Miami, where they are both looking to shore up support from Florida's Hispanic community.

Gingrich started the day talking to an influential business group, the Latin Builders Association. Later, he spoke before the Hispanic Leadership Network — a group devoted to building Republican support among Latinos.

Gingrich laid out his case for an activist policy in Latin America, taking a harder stance against Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez and doing more to help Mexico battle drug cartels.

When he came to the subject of Puerto Rico, Gingrich said he supported the island's right to determine its status. An audience member stood up and asked him to take a stand.

"Do you believe Puerto Rico should be a state," she asked, "or not?"

Gingrich bristled a little bit. "Look, I just said what I believe, and if you don't like it, I'm sorry we disagree. I believe the people of Puerto Rico should make the decision." The audience responded with applause and cheers.

Florida's large Puerto Rican community — which includes many voters who are registered Democrats or independents — is likely to be a larger factor in the general election than in the primary. In 2008, Florida Puerto Ricans went for Barack Obama and helped him carry the state.

Mitt Romney took the stage before the Hispanic Leadership Network about an hour after Gingrich. He was still clearly feeling good from his performance Thursday night in Jacksonville, saying, "It was a delightful debate, I loved it."

Romney handled a question about Puerto Rico a little more deftly — speaking warmly about the prospect of statehood. A few hours later, Puerto Rico's governor, Luis Fortuno, a statehood proponent, endorsed Romney.

That was the second endorsement of the day Gingrich lost out on. After Gingrich, Rick Santorum also spoke to Miami's Latin Builders Association, and he's the candidate that group decided to endorse.

Ron Paul is not actively campaigning here, and Santorum, well back in the polls, is taking a break. He says he's heading home to do his taxes, but expects to be back in Florida over the weekend and plans to campaign through Tuesday's primary.

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