The GOP presidential candidates are getting down and dirty in Florida, just in time for the last debate before voters take to the polls Tuesday. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's press team is hitting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich with attacks, landing almost by the minute in reporters' inboxes, while Gingrich himself has blasted Romney during campaign events.
The two men are in a close race for the top spot in recent polling, making Thursday's debate all the more important. The subject that will undoubtedly be the top issue discussed is immigration.
"I think they'll weasel on it, frankly," says Steffen Schmidt, an analyst at CNN Espanol, one of the debate co-sponsors along with the Hispanic Leadership Network and the Republican Party of Florida.
"They're having a hard time defining their position on immigration because they realize that if they take a position that is too friendly towards legalizing or normalizing the status of people who are in the U.S. illegally or without documents, then they may lose some of the conservative, anti-immigrant Republican voters," says Schmidt, who is also a political science professor at Iowa State University. "But if they take too harsh a position, the way they could afford to do in states where there are not that many Hispanic immigrants, then it puts at risk their campaign in other states where there may be Hispanic voters."
Thus far, Romney has taken the harder stance of the issue, promising to veto the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who graduate from college or serve in the military. He has also said all illegal immigrants currently in the United States should return to their home country before "getting in line" for citizenship. When he was asked about the logistics of this at a debate earlier this week, Romney said it would be accomplished through "self-deportation."
This elicited a muted laugh from the audience and ridicule from Gingrich.
"For Romney to believe that somebody's grandmother is going to be so cut off that she is going to self-deport, I mean this is an Obama-level fantasy," Gingrich said Wednesday in an interview with Univision.
Gingrich has said illegal immigrants with strong ties to their U.S. communities should have the opportunity to stay and become citizens.
But Romney, in his own interview with Univision, reiterated his position that if U.S. employers cracked down on employing illegal immigrants, they would have no choice but to leave.
Schmidt says the trouble for both men is that Florida is the only state where a significant block of Republican voters are Hispanic. They total 11 percent of the four million GOP voters there.
"The truth of the matter is, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are more pragmatic, which means that they change their positions on issues to fit what they think they need to do to get the voters in each of these primaries," he says. "The question is from them, how to take a position that distinguishes one from the other so that they don't both have the same position and yet don't go too far off the reservation and end up saying something that's going to end up losing voters."
The calculus changes again, Schmidt says, once the general election is underway.
"They have to be careful because so much attention is on this and no matter what position they take because a lot of it will be used by the Democrats later in Hispanic communities in the key states, where the key states make a difference, not only in Florida, but in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and others," he warns.
These concerns were highlighted Thursday in an op-ed piece written by former Republican Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who warned his party against inflammatory rhetoric on immigration. Also on Thursday, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American, asked Gingrich's campaign to stop running a radio ad accusing Romney of being "anti-immigrant." Gingrich acquiesced out of "respect" for Rubio, who many have speculated would make a savvy vice presidential selection for the GOP ticket.