ARIAN CAMPO-FLORES and VALERIE BAUERLEIN
MIAMI—The Republican presidential contest in the Hispanic-rich state of Florida is providing an early test of the candidates' appeal to a group that could prove decisive in the November election.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appear to be the strongest contenders in the fight for Florida's Hispanic Republican vote, which is dominated by conservative Cuban-Americans. Yet if Mr. Romney were to win the nomination, he would face higher hurdles than Mr. Gingrich in winning over Latino voters nationally, because he has made statements on immigration that some deem offensive, Hispanic voting experts say.
The Hispanic vote, which is important in key battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada, is credited with helping President Barack Obama win in 2008, when he captured 67% of that vote, compared with 31% for Sen. John McCain. The battle for Latino votes is expected to be hard-fought once again this year.
The GOP candidates are pulling out the stops to woo Hispanics in Florida, where they make up about 12% of Republican voters, according to Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University. Mr. Gingrich has aired a Spanish-language radio ad calling Mr. Romney "anti-immigrant" and is planning a policy speech on Latin America. Mr. Romney's campaign has run a TV ad, "Nosotros" ("Us"), narrated in Spanish by the candidate's son, Craig Romney.
The two candidates, along with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, are also scheduled to participate in various forums before Hispanic audiences, including one on Wednesday sponsored by Univision.
Mr. Gingrich has a history of support among Cuban-Americans dating back to his years in the House, where he championed laws like the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the trade embargo on Cuba. "He is better known by the community," said Pepe Hernandez, president of the Cuban American National Foundation.
Mr. Romney, who lost by 40 points to Mr. McCain among Hispanics in the 2008 Florida primary, has ground to make up in Tuesday's primary. But he secured important endorsements from three well-known Cuban-American lawmakers—Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Among Latino voters nationally, though, Mr. Romney has faced sharp criticism. Before the Iowa caucuses, he said he would veto the DREAM Act, which would let some illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children earn a path to citizenship after serving in the military or finishing college. He also campaigned in South Carolina with Kris Kobach, an architect of the controversial Arizona immigration law.
"Romney has alienated an incredible number of Latinos," said the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which includes some 34,000 Latino evangelical churches. "I'm dumbfounded by the strategy."
During the candidates' debate on Monday night in Tampa, Mr. Romney appeared to soften his position on the DREAM Act, agreeing with Mr. Gingrich that he would support the military provision.
Still, immigrant advocates and Democratic-leaning groups have pounced. On Tuesday, the Service Employees International Union and Priorities USA Action, a political action committee, launched a radio ad attacking Mr. Romney's immigration stances.
Mr. Gingrich, on the other hand, has said he would support a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants with deep roots in the U.S. and has discussed the issue with more measured language.
"Newt's proposal seems to be practical, understanding the complexity of immigration," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. While Mr. Graham said he was pleased that Mr. Romney dialed back his opposition to the DREAM Act on Monday night, he found Mr. Romney's notion of "self-deportation"—illegal immigrants volunteering to leave the country—unrealistic.
Brett Doster, Mr. Romney's Florida adviser, said it would be wrong to assume Hispanic voters care only about immigration. They are most concerned about jobs and the economy, he said.
Many Republicans believe they can capitalize on Mr. Obama's lower approval ratings among Hispanic voters, who are frustrated by the record number of deportations under his administration.
Republicans are gathering later this week to discuss Latino outreach at a conference in Miami sponsored by the Hispanic Leadership Network, which is co-chaired by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. "The demographic handwriting is on the wall," said GOP pollster Whit Ayres, noting that while the U.S. electorate was 88% white in 1980, it was 74% white in 2008.
Yet Republicans have an image problem among many Latinos as a result of harsh immigration rhetoric by some party members, analysts say. A December 2011 survey by polling firm Latino Decisions found that 46% of Hispanics thought the GOP didn't "care too much" about them, and an additional 27% believed it was hostile to them.
"There is a window of opportunity" with Hispanics, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. But "you need to connect with them with rhetoric that is positive and with policy that resonates."