After months of campaigning in which they rarely encountered Latinos, the Republican candidates are suddenly hunting for votes in the state with the third highest number of Hispanics. But in the Tampa debate, neither Mitt Romney nor Newt Gingrich backed down from their tough stands about the English language and immigration - even when confronted with what seems to many to be a little hypocrisy in their campaigns. Beth Reinhard of the National Journal noted that both candidates want to make English the official language and outlaw ballots being printed in Spanish. But Gingrich is sending out Florida press releases in Spanish and Romney is running some Spanish language advertising.
Both candidates insisted there is nothing hypocritical about this. "I think campaigning, historically, you've always been willing to go to people on their terms and in their culture, whether it is Greek Independence Day or something you did for the Irish on St. Patrick's Day," said Gingrich. "I'm perfectly happy to have a lot of support in the Latino community." But he said that "it is essential to have a central language" to unify the country. He added, "Look, English is the language of this nation. People need to learn English."
The only dissenting voice was Ron Paul who favors English as the national language but chided his rivals for trying to impose their policy on the states. "Our system really gives us a way to be more generous," he said. "Because if Florida wanted to have some ballots in Spanish, I certainly wouldn't support a federal law that prohibited Florida" from having them. The others, he said, were "dictating one answer for all states."
The imperative of the issue is clear from the numbers. In the three states where the candidates have spent most of their time campaigning, there is a grand total of only 371,000 Latinos - 37,000 in New Hampshire, 130,000 in Iowa and 204,000 in South Carolina, according to the Pew Hispanic Center numbers for 2009. In Florida, there are 3.9 million. Hispanics in the other three states are either three or four percent; in Florida, they are 22 percent of the population.