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The Republican Presidential Candidates are Again Descending on Little Havana to Swig
With the Florida primary approaching Tuesday, the Republican presidential candidates are again descending on Little Havana to swig cafe con leche and talk up U.S.-Cuba policy.

Such visits are a quasi-requirement as South Florida's Cuban-Americans have been among the GOP's most consistent voters, particularly in presidential races. But with no clear front-runner and inroads from the Democrats, the candidates are finding they must work harder than ever to win Cuban-American support and ensure party loyalty. Anti-Castro sloganeering isn't enough anymore.

"Presidential candidates in both parties are having a difficult time just coming into Miami and articulating their position on Cuba because they're beginning to realize it's not just Cuba that we care about," said University of Miami Cuba studies expert Andy Gomez.

For years Cuban-Americans have turned out heavily for Republicans, favoring their staunch support of the U.S. economic embargo against Fidel Castro's communist government, and some still won't forgive the Democrats for the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1962 or, more recently, Bill Clinton's decision to forcibly send young Elian Gonzalez back home to his father.

The Democrats aren't campaigning in the state because the national party is boycotting Florida after it leapfrogged its primary ahead of other states in violation of party rules.

Still, overwhelming support from Cuban-Americans for one Republican, or even the GOP, is no longer guaranteed in Florida. A powerful Republican Cuban-American congressman is facing his first serious challenge - from a Democrat who is also Cuban-American. A recent poll shows support of the embargo is not as solid as it once was, and Cuban-American leaders have yet to unite behind one candidate.

Republicans need the Cuban-American vote more than ever, with the immigration issue pushing many other Hispanics away from the party. In recent months they have flooded local Spanish-language airwaves and have eaten their way through the region's popular Cuban restaurants.

The main contest among Cuban-American Republicans is shaping up between Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who both have long ties the community. Both, along with former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, are pledging to continue the four-decade economic embargo against the island and maintain the tougher travel and economic restrictions imposed by President Bush.

So the difference among the Republicans is not what Cuba policy they support, but who is supporting them.

Sen. Mel Martinez is supporting McCain, as are Florida's three Cuban-American House members. His uncompromising stance on the Iraq war and his experience as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam, where he faced Cuban interrogators, have particularly endeared him to former political prisoners from the island.

State House Speaker and rising star Marco Rubio is behind Huckabee, who a year ago favored opening trade with Cuba. Huckabee now supports the embargo, and Rubio said he believed the younger generation would understand the late change of heart.

"What we have to realize in the Cuban-American community is that outside of Florida, the Cuba issue is largely misunderstood or not thought about very much," he said. Huckabee, he said, is the candidate who most appeals to middle-class frustration with the economy and job losses.

Romney bungled a visit by mistakenly calling out Castro's favorite phrase - "Fatherland or death!" - but he still managed to win the endorsement of the state's respected former GOP chairman, a Cuban-American.

Then there is Giuliani, who as mayor once blocked Castro's attendance at a United Nations celebration. Although he is now struggling statewide, his frequent visits here earned him endorsements from a slew of local and state Cuban-American representatives. He even led Little Havana's annual Three Kings Day Parade at the helm of a fire truck.

Although the Democrats can't publicly campaign here, they are still vying for Cuban-Americans voters disgruntled with the war in Iraq and the economy.

New York Sen. Hillary Clinton is seeking to tap into the sentiment of Cuban-Americans who want a change in domestic policy and an end to the Iraq war but want no immediate changes when it comes to U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama also supports the embargo, but he set himself apart last summer when he promised to repeal Bush's 2004 regulations that limited Cuban-Americans to one visit to the island every three years and cash remittances to family at $1,200 annually.

He has also voted twice to cut off funding to the controversial Radio and TV Marti broadcasts, which receive $35 million a year from the U.S. government to beam anti-Castro programming to the island. The TV station, which receives most of the money, is jammed by the Cubans.

Meanwhile, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards is straddling the middle. He supports lifting the travel ban for Cuban-Americans though not the ban on remittances.

Florida International University political science Professor Dario Moreno said Cuban-Americans' clout came from voting in blocs, even in primaries. If that's gone, their influence might wane.

"This time, they're not going to be as a determining a factor as they usually are," he said, but he added that such change is a positive sign of political maturity.

"The community has become more complicated," he said. "Now you have to court Cubans, and court South Florida, the way you court the rest of the nation."


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