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Four years ago in Florida, Mitt Romney failed to persuade Republicans that he should be the party's nominee for president. He aims to make sure that doesn't happen this time. Romney made two quick campaign stops in that state yesterday. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports he made a special effort to appeal to Florida's Latino voters.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: El Palacio de Los Jugos - the Palace of the Juices - is not a palace in any traditional sense of the word. It's a casual, sprawling outdoor restaurant and market where people feast on roast pig, rice and beans, plantains, or a fresh coconut hacked open right in front of you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHOPPING)
SHAPIRO: Everyone here speaks Spanish. A few people speak English, as well. And nearly all of the English-speakers vote Republican. Andy Alvarez owns a courier company, and he's lived in Miami since 1966.
ANDY ALVAREZ: I'm like most people here, born in Cuba.
SHAPIRO: Alvarez voted for John McCain in the primary four years ago. This year, he's narrowed it down to Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney.
ALVAREZ: I think Gingrich is just doing better in the debates, and he seems to be more eloquent in his speaking and he seems to be more knowledgeable. Romney seems to be a guy that comes across like he says what people want to hear.
SHAPIRO: That sense that Romney tells people what they want to hear is a national challenge for the former Massachusetts governor. Here in Miami's Latino community, the candidate faces another specialized challenge: Romney has taken a hard-line position on illegal immigration. And for people like Jose Valverde of Costa Rica, that's hard to swallow. Valverde has lived here 20 years, and is about to vote for the first time in the Republican primary.
JOSE VALVERDE: They need to speak for immigration, you know what I mean? Because I saw a lot of person, you know, don't have any papers.
SHAPIRO: Romney's approach to this problem is not to make a mass appeal to a crowd of cheering fans. There are no Yes We Can rallies in his campaign playbook. Instead, from the beginning, Romney has focused on fundraising and endorsements. When he does make public appearances, as he did yesterday at Conchita Foods, the people introducing him speak almost as long as he does. And in this case, the people introducing him carry some weight.
REPRESENTATIVE ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Buenos dias, South Florida.
SHAPIRO: Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She is a leader in South Florida's Cuban-American community. Four years ago, she supported McCain. And yesterday, she endorsed Romney, even while acknowledging that they disagree on immigration and other issues.
ROS-LEHTINEN: At the end of the day, you balance it all out. And I think that the most important point is the economy.
SHAPIRO: Romney himself only spoke for about 10 minutes before a small crowd of supportive guests. It was a version of his typical stump speech, with a few adjustments for the audience at hand.
MITT ROMNEY: It's just amazing to see how people can come to this country, in many cases with nothing other than dreams, and regardless of the circumstances of their birth, where they were born, what education they might have had, how much money they bring with them, they're able to build a future for themselves.
SHAPIRO: If Romney had run a more high-profile campaign, these quick events might go largely unnoticed. But the former Massachusetts governor is a contradictory candidate in some ways. He has done far fewer public events than his rivals, yet he has consistently remained at or near the top of the polls. So a 10-minute appearance like the ones in Miami and Tampa yesterday attracted wide coverage from English and Spanish TV networks alike.
Romney did not take any questions from the audience. But in the scrum of reporters following his Miami comments, he responded to an ad by the Democratic National Committee that mocks his changing positions on abortion, health care and other issues. The ad came out on Monday.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From the creator of "I'm Running for Office, for Pete's Sake," comes the story of two men trapped in one body: "Mitt vs. Mitt."
SHAPIRO: In Miami, Romney said he considers the ad a compliment from President Obama's supporters.
ROMNEY: He does not want to face someone who can talk about the economy, who can talk about the failure of his record, and who can create jobs for America like I can.
SHAPIRO: There is a preview of the back-and-forth we'll be hearing for the next year - that is, if Romney's strategy succeeds.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.