Taking a swipe at a potential GOP presidential rival, Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton on Saturday criticized Fred Thompson for suggesting...

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — 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.

Thompson, who is expected to join the race soon, made the comment 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.

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Noting 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 [Cuban leader Fidel] Castro. We’re living in the era of the suitcase bomb.”

A video clip of Thompson’s remark 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.

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-overhaul bill in the Senate still fresh, all the candidates vowed to pursue comprehensive immigration overhaul in the future. All said they support a path to citizenship for the approximately 12 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama defended his vote last year to build a 698-mile fence across the U.S.-Mexico border, saying it was just one component of a robust immigration bill he had worked hard to negotiate.

“Do I believe fences make good neighbors and are the right approach? No, I don’t believe that,” Obama said.

Clinton and Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden also voted for the bill containing the fence provision.

Biden drew applause when he noted that up to 40 percent of illegal immigrants were not Hispanic.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards told the crowd his 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 candidates laced their remarks with Spanish, with varying degrees of success.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson won cheers as the first Hispanic candidate to run for president. He, too, spoke Spanish, calling supporters “Mi gente, mi familia,” or my people, my family.

GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, meanwhile, courting Iowa conservatives, found himself answering questions about the role his Mormon faith would play should he win the race.

Romney told one questioner at a forum co-sponsored by a Christian group that “we have exactly the same values” and said there is no religious litmus test for candidates. The former Massachusetts governor dismissed suggestions of a conflict between his religion and his ability to govern.

The questions arose as Romney prepared to join five other Republican candidates at a forum in Pella sponsored by two of the most important forces in Iowa Republican politics: the Iowa Christian Alliance and Iowans for Tax Relief. Pella is 40 miles south of Des Moines.

Romney and his rivals paraded before about 750 conservative activists, using half-hour chunks to rail against abortion rights and gay marriage, and offer tough talk about building a fence along the border with Mexico. All pledged to cut taxes and shrink government.

Loudest cheers of the day went to Rep. Tom Tancredo, of Colorado, who railed against illegal immigration. “If you want to call me a single-issue candidate, that’s fine as long as you know my issue is the survival of this country,” he said.

Other rivals focused on Democrats, mainly Clinton.

“If you want to make sure Hillary Clinton is not elected next year, you better vote for Tommy Thompson,” said the former Wisconsin governor.

Romney and Thompson were joined at the forum by Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, Tancredo and Hunter.

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