Reporters mobbed Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich when he arrived at Little Havana's Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to shore up support among Miami's influential Cuban-American Hispanics. Gingrich slowly made his way to the outdoor coffee counter, drank Cuban coffee and chatted with the restaurant staff, who burst in applause once he was finished.
Then Gingrich spoke for 20 minutes to a room inside the restaurant packed with cameras and Cuban Americans. U.S. Rep. David Rivera, who has broken with his fellow Miami Republicans who have backed Mitt Romney, introduced Gingrich as "the only Speaker that has balanced the federal budget."
"After two café cubanos out front, I am much more energized than when I first got here," Gingrich said.
He criticized the Obama administration's policies on Latin America.
"Surely Washington can look south, can look 90 miles beyond our shores," Gingrich said to a delighted crowd. "My goal as president will be to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring."
Later, he added: "We need to have a new government in Venezuela, just as we need a new government in Iran."
Gingrich then played up his immigration stance, which he calls more "humane" than those of his GOP primary opponents.
"I broke from the normal Republican rhetoric," he said, explaining that he would not seek to deport undocumented immigrants who have been in the country for a long time without breaking any laws.
"What if you're an abuelo or an abuela?"
He pointed to one of his daughters, who lives in Key Biscayne and welcomed Gingrich's supporters in broken Spanish. Gingrich said children in the U.S. should learn English because it is the language of business and that is the only way they will be able to succeed. "The common language of the United States...happens to be English," he said.
Gingrich then took comments from several people in the audience, including Carlos Sanchez, who identified himself as U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio's dentist. Gingrich congratulated Sanchez on Rubio's smile -- to which Sanchez responded he had nothing to do with it.
"He's a natural in every sense," Sanchez said of Rubio.
Then reporters asked Gingrich about Romney's momentum in Florida, where the former Massachusetts governor has television ads in all 10 state media markets, as well as TV and radio spots in Spanish and a slew of mailers.
Gingrich touted that he announced his 67 Florida campaign county co-chairs before Romney did and spoke of several thousand volunteers.
"If Romney thinks money's what matters, then he is going to lose to Obama," Gingrich said. "I think ideas are what matter."
Gingrich also said that Romney outspent U.S. Sen. John McCain in Florida in 2008 and lost, "because after they got through all the ads, he was still Romney."
Those who attended the debate said they were delighted by Gingrich's remarks about Cuba.
"I know that maybe he doesn't have a big chance, but today I liked him more than before," said Manuel Malgor, president of the American Missile Crisis Veterans Association. "I couldn't find a single defect in what he said...Hopefully whoever is the nominee at the end -- Romney or whoever -- thinks the same as he does."
Alma Aguilera of Unidad Hondureña Independiente, an organization concerned about immigration, also praised Gingrich.
"I like that he spoke about keeping families united," she said. "[Romney] has spoken about tougher laws."
-- Patricia Mazzei