MIAMI — Newt Gingrich was ahead in the rhetorical war among Republican presidential hopefuls on who could be toughest on Cuba's communist regime, suggesting Wednesday he would bomb the island if there were a popular uprising.
Both former House speaker Gingrich and his top rival, ex-Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, were engaged in heated campaigning in Florida days before the January 31 Republican primary. And both were desperately wooing the state's large Cuban-American community, nearly a million strong.
Gingrich was asked to explain comments that if elected, he would "not tolerate four more years of a Cuban dictatorship." If the US planes bombed Libya's Moamer Kadhafi, should they do the same with Cuba's Raul Castro and his brother Fidel?
"If there was a genuine legitimate uprising, we would, of course, be on the side of the people," Gingrich told Spanish-language network Univision.
"In that sense I don't see why Cuba should be sacrosanct, and we should say, 'Oh, don't do anything to hurt' -- you know, we're very prepared to back people in Libya. We may end up backing people in Syria. But now Cuba? Hands off Cuba. That's baloney. People of Cuba deserve freedom."
The audience at the Miami venue where Univision held the interview broke into applause.
Gingrich also said that he would "take all of the tools that Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Prime Minister Thatcher used to break the Soviet Empire," including psychological warfare, covert operations, and a tight diplomatic and economic embargo.
Diplomatic and economic isolation has been the US policy for decades, however, and have not budged much less ended the Americas' only one-party Communist regime.
Fidel Castro governed Cuba 1959-2006, when he fell ill and handed power to his brother Raul. Now 85, Fidel Castro is retired but remains an influential figure.
The United States slapped a full embargo on Havana starting in 1961, and the two countries have do not have full diplomatic ties.
Romney was asked in the Republican debate on Monday for his reaction should Fidel Castro die and a wave of Cubans seek refuge in the United States. "Well, first of all, you thank heavens that Fidel Castro has returned to his maker and will be sent to another land," he said.
Gingrich differed on Castro's final resting place.
"I don't think that Fidel is going to meet his maker. I think he's going to go to the other place," he said, a response that earned a round of applause.
Fidel Castro himself dismissed the tough talk as "idiocy."
"The selection of a Republican candidate for the presidency of this globalized and expansive Empire is ... the greatest competition of idiocy and ignorance that has ever been heard," Castro wrote in Cuban state media on Wednesday.
"Since I have things to do, I cannot dedicate more time to this," he wrote.