By Patricia Mazzei and Scott Hiaasen
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 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 after 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."
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, the fourth candidate in the race, has not actively campaigned in Florida, which holds its primary Tuesday. Early voting ends today.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Friday showed Romney with a 9 point 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 Fortuno.
Neither Gingrich's nor Romney's rhetoric was met with the warmth Rubio received.
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."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.
Florida presidential primary tracker for today
Mitt Romney: Pensacola, 8:15 a.m. CST, the Fish House, veterans rally; Panama City, 1:45 p.m. CST, Eastern Ship Building, grass roots rally.
Newt Gingrich: Stuart, 8:30 a.m., Willoughby Golf Club, Martin County Lincoln Day Breakfast; Port St. Lucie, 9:45 a.m., PGA Center for Golf Learning and Performance, meet and greet; Orlando, 2:30 p.m., Centro de La Familia Hispanic Townhall Meeting; Winter Park, 4 p.m., Aloma Baptist Church, Orange County Liberty Counsel Forum; Orlando, 5:30 p.m., Rosen Shingle Creek, Orange County Lincoln Day Dinner; West Palm Beach, 8 p.m., Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, Palm Beach Lincoln Day Dinner.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul: No Florida events.