Sunday, September 09, 2007

Democrats woo Cuban-Americans in landmark Spanish debate

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

By Madeline Baró Diaz | Miami Bureau
September 9, 2007

The presidential election is more than a year away, but Democratic candidates are already trying to breach the Republicans' stronghold in the Cuban-American community, hoping that a strong enough showing among Cuban voters will help them win Florida's electoral votes in 2008.

They might have an opportunity today when the Democratic contenders participate in the first Spanish-language presidential debate. The 7 p.m. forum at the University of Miami, moderated by Univisión anchors Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, will be broadcast by the network on television, radio and the Internet.

Although it targets a diverse Hispanic audience, the forum takes place in the heart of the Cuban-American community, making it likely that the candidates will discuss Cuba.

Cuban-American voters traditionally have largely voted for Republicans. Their votes are coveted because Florida is considered a swing state and Cuban-Americans are among the groups that could decide the outcome.

"[Florida] is the largest of the states that is up for grabs," said Dario Moreno, director of the Metropolitan Center and associate professor of political science at Florida International University.

Moreno said former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani has the strongest support among Cuban-Americans in Florida, with polls putting him well ahead of other Republican contenders.

"A lot of that has to do with his hard-line stance on terrorism and foreign policy, which always plays well with Cuban-Americans," Moreno said.

Among the Democrats, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has made the most positive impression with Cuban-Americans, Moreno said. While Illinois Sen. Barack Obama made headlines recently when he called for lifting the Bush Administration's 2004 decision to limit Cuban-Americans' ability to travel to Cuba and send remittances there, Clinton has said she supports the policy.

By disagreeing with Obama on Cuba policy and his willingness to meet with "rogue regimes" such as Cuba, North Korea and Syria, Clinton has "kind of made herself a real alternative for Cuban-Americans who are thinking of voting Democrat for other reasons," Moreno said.

Clinton, however, has to contend with her husband's legacy. Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton law, which tightened the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and he won more than 30 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 1996. But many Cuban exiles also saw his administration as too willing to consider re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The Clinton Administration also removed 6-year-old Elián González from the home of his Miami relatives in 2000 and reunited the boy with his father, who took him back to Cuba. That was a bitter episode for many exiles.

"She and her husband have a credibility issue to deal with, with regard to the Cuban-American community," said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Cuban-Americans make up about 6 percent of Florida's voters and about half of the state's Hispanic voters, Moreno said. In past elections, Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates have typically received 70 to 80 percent of the Cuban-American vote, he said.

Democrats hope to chip away at that.

"The Republicans can't win Florida without Cuban-Americans," said Joe Garcia, chairman of the Democratic Party of Miami-Dade County. "If a Democrat can get 32 or 33 percent [of the vote], it makes it almost impossible for a Republican to win statewide. That number is going to be reached. I think it's going to be surpassed."

Garcia sees reasons to be optimistic: many Cuban-Americans are registered as Democrats or independents. Also, in the 2006 congressional elections South Florida's Republican Cuban-American U.S. representatives faced strong challenges from candidates who were not well known and who were outspent by the incumbents. When Obama held an August fundraiser at the Dade County Auditorium in Little Havana, only a handful of Cuban exile protesters showed up outside.

Garcia said Obama's position on restrictions and remittances is in line with that of most Cuban-Americans.

Cardenas disagrees. Cardenas said reading Obama's op-ed piece outlining his stance on Cuba policy made it clear he was not a threat.

"I said to myself 'Thank goodness.' That did more to help us than anything any of our candidates could have said," said Cardenas, who is a chairman of Mitt Romney's Florida campaign and is leading Romney's national Hispanic outreach efforts. "I do not see any of the top-tier Democratic candidates being a major threat to the support that the Republican presidential candidate has been used to in the past."

Political observers say a candidate's position on Cuba is the "litmus test" for anyone trying to get the Cuban-American vote, but candidates also have to address issues that Cuban-Americans, like the rest of the country, are concerned about such as health care, Social Security and the economy.

"You can't just say 'Death to Castro' and expect to get the Cuban-American vote," Moreno said.

Madeline Baró Diaz can be reached at mbaro@sun-sentinel.com or 305-810-5007.

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GOP losing support with Hispanic voters

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