GOP Race in Florida is Taking a Castro Detour

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most anti-Castro of them all?

The race is on – for the U.S. presidency, yes, but just as urgently, to be seen by Florida’s Latino voters (especially Cuban Americans) as the GOP contender most likely to give ulcers to the Castro brothers.

GOP front-runner Mitt Romney sent two statements out on Friday stressing the former Massachusetts governor’s commitment to freedom on the island.

In a strongly worded statement, Romney blamed the Castro regime for the death Thursday of Wilman Villar, a political prisoner who went on a 50-day hunger strike to protest his detainment and four-year sentence.

Other dissidents in Cuba and supporters of Villar, 31, outside the nation said he was arrested by Cuban authorities after a peaceful demonstration against the regime and in a call for human rights.

The race is on – for the U.S. presidency, yes, but just as urgently, to be seen by Florida’s Latino voters (especially Cuban Americans) as the GOP contender most likely to give ulcers to the Castro brothers.

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Villar’s death comes two years after the death of another dissident, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who was on an 80-day hunger strike to protest his incarceration and what he had said was the physical abuse he suffered at the hands of Cuban authorities.

“The Castro regime is responsible for the death of Wilman Villar, just as it is responsible for the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, and countless other brave prisoners of conscience that the world might never know,” Romney said in a statement. “Those of us who believe in freedom and cherish democracy must do our part to tell Wilman’s story and denounce the injustices and cruelties of the Castro tyranny.”

The statement came hours after the Romney campaign sent out a response to a Spanish-language radio ad by GOP rival Newt Gingrich that cast the former Massachusetts governor as someone who used the same slogan as Fidel Castro and held an unreasonably hard line on immigration.

Gingrich, who recently made a stop in South Florida, where he met with Cuban exiles, is airing ads that tell listeners that Romney a few years ago borrowed from a phrase from Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

The ad opens with the phrase "Fatherland or Death, we will prevail," which uttered by Castro in Spanish said: "Patria o muerte, venceremos!"

"Unlike Romney, who uses statements from Castro, Newt Gingrich has fought against the regime with Lincoln and Ileana to approve Helms-Burton," the ad says , referring to two Florida GOP Cuban-American members of Congress. "He supported the formation of Radio and TV Marti; and is in favor of holding the Castro brothers accountable for the shooting down of the Brothers to the Rescue airplanes."

Romney's campaign shot back Friday, telling Fox News Latino that some of Florida's leading proponents in Congress of a democratic Cuba have endorsed Romney because of his commitment to freedom in the hemisphere.

“This ad is false and full of ridiculous claims," said Alberto Martínez, a Romney spokesman. "Mario Díaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Díaz-Balart all stand with Mitt Romney because he has laid out a clear vision for spreading democracy in our hemisphere."

Florida, which holds its primary on Jan. 31, will be the first state the candidates compete for votes in where Latinos can swing results. And Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican, usually are a heavily-courted constituency for presidential political candidates.

On Friday, the Cuban-American mayor of Hialeah, a South Florida city that long has been home to a large Cuban exile community, said he planned to cast his ballot for Romney.

The very addition of Alberto Martínez, in fact, was seen as a smart move on the part of the Romney campaign as it courts the Latino vote.

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The Miami Herald noted Romney in Martínez, Romney had gained “a veteran Florida political operative who most recently worked as a senior advisor to Marco Rubio's successful Senate campaign.”

Martínez's Democratic alter-ego, Obama Florida campaign director Steve Schale, tweeted: "Smart hire by Romney."

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached

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