After Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, he seemed to be well positioned to win whites and Hispanics in the Florida primary. The theory went that he could win whites with his fierce rhetoric about American exceptionalism and do better with Hispanics than Mitt Romney because he was running to the left of Romney on immigration. In 2008, Romney, who ran to the right of McCain on immigration, won over whites but lost to McCain in Florida because McCain did better among Hispanic voters.
Going into Florida, Romney seemed in danger of being in political no man’s land, losing the white vote because his rhetoric was not fierce enough while losing the Hispanic vote to Gingrich because his policies were to the right of Gingrich’s.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Florida’s January 31 primary.
At a CNN debate in Jacksonville on Thursday, Romney won a crucial immigration exchange against Gingrich and positioned himself to win conservative voters in Jacksonville in addition to more moderate Hispanic voters in Miami. Should that be a reality at the ballot box on Monday, Romney will win Florida and, most likely, the nomination.
In hindsight, Gingrich’s greatest tactical mistake of the cycle may have been running a Spanish language ad in which he called Romney “anti-immigrant.”
That ad allowed Senator Marco Rubio to get involved in the the primary by criticizing Gingrich and allowed Romney to appeal to whites who favor a harsher immigration policy in addition to Hispanics who favor a more moderate approach.
When Gingrich again implied Romney was “anti-immigrant” at the debate, Romney had his strongest moment of the 2012 election cycle.
“That’s inexcusable,” Romney said. “ And, actually, Senator Marco Rubio came to my defense and said that ad was inexcusable and inflammatory and inappropriate.
Mr. Speaker, I’m not anti-immigrant. My father was born in Mexico. My wife’s father was born in Wales. They came to this country. The idea that I’m anti-immigrant is repulsive.”
Romney continued, admonishing Gingrich to not “use a term like that.”
“You can say we disagree on certain policies, but to say that enforcing the U.S. law to protect our borders, to welcome people here legally, to expand legal immigration, as I have proved, that that’s somehow anti anti-immigrant is simply the kind of over-the-top rhetoric that has characterized American politics too long,” Romney said.
Gingrich then challenged Romney again on the point.
“You tell me what language you would use to describe somebody who thinks that deporting a grandmother or a grandfather from their family — just tell me the language,” Gingrich pressed Romney. “ I’m perfectly happy for you to explain what language you’d use. “
Romney countered, by saying, “…to use that rhetoric suggests to people that somehow, if you’re not willing to keep people here who violated the law, that you’re anti- immigrant. Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Added Romney: “Our problem is 11 million people getting jobs that many Americans, legal immigrants, would like to have. It’s school kids in schools that districts are having a hard time paying for. It’s people getting free health care because we are required under the law to provide that health care. And the real concern is the people who want to come here legally. Let’s let legal immigrants come here. Let’s stop illegal immigration.”
And just like that, in one exchange, Romney was able to fiercely claim that he was not “anti-immigrant” while , citing the popular Rubio as a defender, while simultaneously running to the right of Gingrich on immigration. He came out of the night with more appeal to Republican voters in both Jacksonville and Miami, and it is a debate exchange that may have won him the nomination.
In the spin room after the debate, Tim Pawlenty, who is now a Romney surrogate, told reporters that Gingrich lost “his mojo.” Meanwhile, Fred Thompson, who represented Gingrich, said that elites and voters may view these debates differently and Gingrich’s debate performance was “presidential.”
The polls show a deadlocked race in Florida. If Romney was in fact the leader going into the debate, Gingrich did not do enough to take back votes from Romney that he needed.