By BETH FOUHY 06.30.07, 6:05 PM ET
Taking a swipe at a potential GOP presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday criticized Fred Thompson for suggesting illegal Cuban immigrants pose a terrorist threat.
"I was appalled when one of the people running for or about to run for the Republican nomination talked about Cuban refugees as potential terrorists," Clinton told Hispanic elected officials. "Apparently he doesn't have a lot of experience in Florida or anywhere else, and doesn't know a lot of Cuban-Americans."
Thompson, who is polling strongly among GOP primary voters and is expected to join the race soon, made the comment at a campaign stop Wednesday in South Carolina.
The actor and former Tennessee senator was criticizing an immigration bill in the Senate, contending it would make the country more vulnerable to terrorism.
Noting that the United States had apprehended 1,000 people from Cuba in 2005, Thompson said, "I don't imagine they're coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb." Fidel Castro is Cuba's leader.
A video clip of Thompson's remark immediately circulated on YouTube and has drawn considerable attention in Florida, a key early primary state home to many Republican-leaning Cuban Americans.
Thompson spokeswoman Burson Snyder declined to comment Saturday, pointing to a note Thompson posted Thursday on his campaign blog saying he had been referring to Cuban spies, not immigrants. "Our national security is too important an issue to let folks twist words around for a one-day headline," Thompson said in his post. "Cuban-Americans are among the staunchest opponents of illegal immigration, and especially so when it's sponsored by the Castro regime."
All the major Democratic presidential candidates were at Walt Disney World for a forum sponsored by the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Of the GOP candidates, only California Rep. Duncan Hunter accepted the group's invitation to speak.
With the failure of an immigration reform bill in the Senate still fresh, all the candidates vowed to pursue comprehensive immigration reform in the future. All said they support a path to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama defended his vote last year to build a 700-mile fence across the U.S.-Mexican border, saying it was just one component of a robust immigration bill he had worked hard to negotiate.
"Nobody has been a more consistent supporter of comprehensive immigration reform than I have been," Obama said. "Do I believe fences make good neighbors and are the right approach? No, I don't believe that."
Obama also promised a greater foreign policy focus on Latin America if elected president.
"It's not enough for us to have a Latin American policy based on not liking (Venezuelan president) Hugo Chavez and not liking Fidel Castro," Obama said.
Delaware Sen. Joe Biden drew applause when he noted that as many as 40 percent of illegal immigrants were not Hispanic.
"It's a race to the bottom - who out there can be the most anti-Hispanic," Biden said of the immigration debate. "Why is it we only view it through the prism of Spanish speaking people?"
Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards told the crowd his rural hometown of Robbins, N.C. was now half Hispanic.
"They came for the same reason my parents came - they wanted their children to have a better life," Edwards said.
Several of the candidates laced their remarks with Spanish, with varying degrees of success.
Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, fully bilingual from his days as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, cracked up the crowd when he told them, in Spanish, "I'm the only Gringo in the Senate" to speak the language.
Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, saying he believed all American children should learn to speak Spanish, gave his closing statement in Spanish while apologizing in advance for his accent.
Audience members at first seemed unsure how to respond, but in the end appeared somewhat charmed at his efforts to soldier through.
"It worked, but barely," Democratic Texas State Rep. Rafael Anchia said of Kucinich's effort.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson won cheers from the audience as the first Hispanic candidate to run for president. He, too, spoke Spanish to the crowd, calling them "Mi gente, mi familia" - my people, my family.
"I'm not running as a Latino candidate. I'm running as an American governor who is enormously proud to be Latino," he told supporters.
A fluent Spanish speaker, Richardson called his supporters at the association "Mi gente, mi familia," - my people, my family.
Florida, which intends to hold its important primary Jan. 29, is more than 20 percent Hispanic.
Associated Press Writer Laura Wides-Munoz contributed to this report.