MIAMI — After bashing each other in the final debate before the crucial Florida primary, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich traveled south to Miami on Friday to woo Hispanic power brokers.
But before either candidate could utter a word, they were upstaged.
Sen. Marco Rubio gave sweeping remarks on immigration — the kind of personal, stirring speech Gingrich and Romney could only wish they had delivered.
Neither Gingrich, his Florida momentum stalled after his commanding South Carolina victory last week, nor Romney, riding a wave after his strong performance in a Jacksonville debate Thursday, could match the reception Rubio received in the Doral Golf Resort & Spa at a conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network, former Gov. Jeb Bush's organization.
Of the two GOP primary frontrunners, the crowd of several hundred — almost all of them Hispanic — clearly preferred Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He was introduced by his wife, Ann, and the youngest of his five sons, Craig, who lived in Chile and speaks some Spanish.
Loose, confident and not wearing a tie, Romney received enthusiastic applause and whistles when he declared, "We are not anti-immigrant."
"We are not anti-immigration," he added, a reference to a controversial attack ad Gingrich aired against him earlier this week before the campaign pulled it following scathing criticism from Rubio and other prominent Florida Hispanics.
Gingrich, who spent much of Thursday atoning for the ad, took another hit Friday after Bush told the National Review that Gingrich should not have bashed Romney for hiring staffers of former Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist. Rubio, too, had chastised Gingrich for that comparison. Former Crist supporters also work for Gingrich.
And though Gingrich paid an early visit Friday to the influential Latin Builders Association, the group ultimately endorsed the only other candidate who appeared in person, Rick Santorum. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, gave a more personal speech than Gingrich, with a more explicit appeal to Cuban-American voters.
Santorum told the story of his grandfather, an Italian immigrant who worked in Pennsylvania coal mines until he was 72 years old.
"Those were the hands that dug freedom for me in America," he said. He then praised Miami's Cuban-American community for its "passion for freedom."
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, the fourth candidate in the race, has not actively campaigned in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday. Early voting ends Saturday.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Friday showed Romney with a 9 percent lead over Gingrich among likely Republican voters.
Coming off Thursday night's debate, in which he didn't land any decisive blows against Romney, former House Speaker Gingrich mostly avoided mentioning his chief rival Friday in his two Miami campaign stops.
To the Latin Builders, Gingrich emphasized his connections as a young congressman to Ronald Reagan. He proposed erasing the federal Environmental Protection Agency — which he called a "dictatorial, job-killing agency" — and recasting it as the "Environmental Solutions Agency."
To the Hispanic Leadership Network, Gingrich — his wife, Callista, by his side — tried to appeal to Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida. But on that issue, too, Gingrich was one-upped by one of his opponents: Romney on Friday received the coveted endorsement of Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuño.
Unlike Hispanic voters elsewhere in the country, Florida Hispanics — largely Puerto Ricans, who are American citizens, and Cuban-Americans, with special immigration privileges — are less concerned with the politics of immigration. But the topic has nevertheless dominated the primary conversation.
On Friday, Gingrich noted the failures of previous Republican and Democratic administrations on passing immigration legislation. "I don't believe you can pass a comprehensive bill," he said, adding that it would face "too many enemies."
Gingrich and Romney disagreed on what to do with the approximately 11 million people who are in the United States illegally. Gingrich said "young, unattached" undocumented immigrants would go back to their countries and apply for a guest-worker visa under his proposal. His plan would call for the U.S. to grant legal status — though not citizenship — to families who have been in the country for decades.
Romney, on the other hand, said all undocumented immigrants should be granted temporary, legal status and then forced to return to their countries to apply for citizenship. "We're not going to go out and round people in buses and send them home," he said.
Yet neither Gingrich's nor Romney's rhetoric was met with the warmth Rubio received when he gave the first immigration speech of the day.
Rubio, who has not backed anyone in the race, said the U.S. cannot legalize 11 million people, but seemed to fall closer to Gingrich's position.
"It's not realistic to expect that you're going to deport 11 million people," he acknowledged. He also suggested the U.S. must "accommodate" young people who came to the country illegally as children, though Rubio did not elaborate on specifics.
Rubio accused both parties of playing politics with immigration to try to appeal to Hispanics.
"We must admit that there are those among us who have used rhetoric that is harsh and intolerable, inexcusable," Rubio said. "And we must admit — myself included — that sometimes we've been too slow in condemning that language for what it is."
Rubio got choked up speaking about his grandfather. He made self-deprecating jokes. He read a poem engraved inside the Statue of Liberty.
And when a couple of young protesters interrupted his speech, asking Rubio why he isn't helping them — "You're an immigrant yourself!" they yelled — Rubio urged security to let them stay.
"I'm not who they think I am," he said, though the young men were escorted out of the room anyway. Later, he asked audience members to put themselves in the shoes of people in other countries looking for a better life for their children.
"There is no fence high enough, there is no ocean wide enough that most of us would not cross to provide for them what they do not have," he said.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.