By Marc Caputo
The close, volatile Republican presidential campaign exploded in Miami on Wednesday as Newt Gingrich pulled a controversial Spanish-language immigration ad after Sen. Marco Rubio bashed it as out of bounds.
The radio ad, featuring a snippet of a Fidel Castro line, described Mitt Romney as "anti-immigrant" for his hardline stances, which mirror those of Rubio and many Republican leaders.
"This kind of language is more than just unfortunate. It's inaccurate, inflammatory, and doesn't belong in this campaign," Rubio, who is neutral in the race, told the Miami Herald when asked about the ad.
"The truth is that neither of these two men is anti-immigrant," Rubio said. "Both are pro-legal immigration and both have positive messages that play well in the Hispanic community."
The unexpected criticism from the nation's leading Hispanic Republican figure underscored the difficulties of campaigning on immigration in Miami-Dade's Cuban exile community, which accounts for just under three-quarters of the Republican vote in the largest county of the nation's largest swing state.
A new poll of Florida Hispanics shows Gingrich losing badly to Romney. And both trail President Barack Obama by double digits, though Gingrich does worse among Hispanics against the Democrat than Romney. Two polls released Wednesday showed both essentially tied among all voters.
After Rubio's criticism, Gingrich's campaign said it would pull the ad out of "respect" for Rubio, whom both candidates would love to have as a running mate. His campaign then announced it would edit out the "anti-immigrant" line and re-run the ad.
Gingrich earlier defended the ad's language in an interview with a Miami TV station. Gingrich specifically took exception with Romney's call at a Monday debate for people to deport themselves if they're here illegally.
"I think he's amazingly insensitive to the realities of the immigrant community - his whole concept of self-deportation," Gingrich said. "I've not met anyone who thinks it's in touch with reality. People aren't going to self deport."
But his own spokesman had told a New Hampshire paper that, as a consequence of Gingrich's immigration plan, "it's likely the vast majority of them (illegal immigrants) would self-deport."
Romney, too, found himself the target of his own words on the Florida campaign trail, where he has attacked Gingrich as an "influence peddler" because he was paid as a consultant for mortgage giant Freddie Mac, implicated in the housing crash and foreclosure crisis gripping 1 in every 360 Florida homes.
Turns out, a few Romney campaign advisers were lobbyists for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, some of whom were paid to fight reform efforts, according to the Associated Press and the Daily Caller conservative news website.
Also, AP and the Democratic group American Bridge 21st Century pointed out that one of Romney's investments yielded $500,000 from Fannie Mae. And CNN reported that Romney was a "distinguished panelist" at a Fannie Mae Foundation housing conference in 2004 - just as the housing bubble started to inflate.
But it was before Fannie and Freddie began taking on risky home loans.
Romney said there's "absolutely" bipartisan blame for the housing crisis, which started during the George W. Bush administration.
"Part of it was Republicans. Part of it was Democrats," Romney said. "This idea that everybody has to own a home - that we're going to give mortgages to people who can't pay them back - that is a primary reason that we got in the economic stress that occurred within the housing market."
The Florida race is almost dead even - 36 percent for Romney, 34 percent for Gingrich - according to new polls from Quinnipiac University and CNN-Time. The polls indicate Gingrich is surging, though.
But not with Hispanics, according to an ABC-Univision poll. Cuban-Americans - the largest bloc of Republican Hispanic voters - favor Romney by 26 percentage points among GOP Hispanics. Romney's lead over Gingrich is 15 percentage points among Hispanics of all parties.
In a general-election matchup, though, Obama beats Romney, 50 percent to 40 percent among Hispanics. Obama's lead grows to 22 percentage points against Gingrich among Hispanics, the poll says.
Against this backdrop, Romney and Gingrich gave speeches Wednesday on Cuba and Latin America, and plan to return Friday to Miami.
Gingrich has tried to curry as much favor with Hispanic voters as possible, leading him to cut the ad with the "anti-immigrant" line. Romney called it, "Outrageous. Outrageous. My dad was born in Mexico, came here at age 5. It's an outrageous charge from Newt Gingrich. I'm pro-immigration. I'm pro-legal immigration."
But Gingrich told Univision that Romney's immigration plans are unrealistic and like an "Obama-level fantasy." Said Gingrich: "You have to live in a world of Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island bank accounts ... to have some fantasy this far from reality."
That line elicited criticism from the conservative Club for Growth, which said Gingrich was demonizing wealth.
Gingrich caught grief from liberals as well Wednesday when hecklers tried to shout him down at a Wings Plus rally in Coral Springs.
Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman, Patricia Mazzei and Clark Spencer, along with McClatchy Washington Bureau reporters David Lightman, Erika Bolstad and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.
Florida presidential primary tracker for today
Mitt Romney: Jacksonville, 10:15, Paramount Printing; Sen. John McCain campaigns for Romney at a town hall at 3:40 p.m. at the Chamber of Commerce building in Sun City Center, then at a second town hall at 6:25 p.m. at VFW Post 4256 in Madeira Beach.
Newt Gingrich: Mount Dora, 9 a.m., Lake County Tea Party rally; Jacksonville, 1 p.m., University of North Florida, Jacksonville Veterans Event.
Rick Santorum: Tallahassee, 7 a.m., Florida State University, CFC Leadership Prayer Breakfast; Tallahassee, 9 a.m., "Faith, Family and Freedom" Town Hall; Pensacola, 1 p.m., New World landing, Escambia County Republican Party rally.
Ron Paul: No events scheduled.
GOP debate: 8-10 p.m., CNN, live from Jacksonville. All four candidates participating.