Republicans Woo Cuban-American Vote in Florida

Republican presidential candidates are preparing for their next primary, to be held in Florida on Tuesday. Candidates are heavily courting the Cuban-American vote, and that strong competition has left the community divided.

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In Florida last night, John McCain's presidential campaign got a boost ahead of Tuesday's primary. He was endorsed by the state's Republican governor, Charlie Crist. That nod goes with another from Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American and a symbol of that group's strong ties to the GOP.

The Republican presidential candidates have been enjoying lots of Cuban coffee in Miami lately. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports this campaign season's strong competition for the Cuban American vote has left the community divided.

GREG ALLEN: For former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani right now, there are few places more important than Miami's Little Havana.

(Soundbite of music)

ALLEN: Twenty senior citizens dressed in white with red bandanas are dancing onstage at a community center in Little Havana. Two hundred more seniors are in the audience. Conversation is mostly in Spanish as they wait for the main event.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking in foreign language)

ALLEN: Giuliani has a lot riding on Florida, in fact almost everything. While former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Arizona Senator John McCain racked up wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan and South Carolina, Giuliani spent most of his time here in Florida. Fifty-seven delegates are up for grabs in Tuesday's primary, far more than any other Republican event so far. And it's expected that one of every eight Republican votes will be cast by a Cuban American.

To an interpreter, Giuliani talks about his immigrant grandparents and his close ties to the Cuban American community.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; Presidential Candidate): I feel very at home here.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

Mr. GIULIANI: I feel very at home here because I've been in the Cuban American community for many, many years. I know it well.

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking in foreign language)

ALLEN: The banner on stage says Florida is Rudy country, and the former mayor had a strong lead here for months. But now, polls show he slipped to third place behind McCain and Romney. And even among Cuban Americans, with whom he's long been popular, Giuliani is no longer the prohibitive favorite.

Across the street from where Giuliani's appearing Rupert Perez(ph) is drinking, what else, Cuban coffee outside Irwahi's Bakery(ph).

Mr. RUPERT PEREZ: I want to vote John McCain.

ALLEN: And why is that?

Mr. PEREZ: I think that he's going to rise(ph) in Washington and…

ALLEN: Mitt Romney has also made a strong bid for the Cuban American vote in Miami and has run a Spanish language ad featuring his son, Craig.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Mr. CRAIG ROMNEY: (Speaking in foreign language)

ALLEN: Mike Huckabee has also downed his share of Cuban coffee and received endorsements from key Cuban American leaders. But on Friday, McCain topped that with an endorsement from Florida's highest-ranking Cuban American official, Senator Mel Martinez. Martinez delivered his endorsement just before McCain's speech to the influential Latin Builders Association.

One sign of the group's clout: McCain was actually the fourth GOP candidate to address them on Friday. He talked to the Builders Association about his tie to Cuban Americans, going back to the days when he was a Navy pilot ready to launch from the USS Enterprise during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): My friends, many years ago, I was committed to the freedom of the people of Cuba. I am just as committed today. You can count on me.

ALLEN: Political science professor at Florida International University Dario Moreno notes that for Cuban Americans, this array of choices is a departure. Since they embraced Ronald Reagan in 1980, they've always quickly united behind a Republican presidential candidate.

Professor DARIO MORENO (Political Science, Florida International University): Why you see this split? It's, one, it's the maturing of the community, that the community doesn't view itself as a monolith anymore, if it ever did. And also quite frankly, I think the vision in the Cuban American community kind of reflect a division among all Republicans.

ALLEN: Cuban Americans have long been one of Florida's most reliable Republican voting blocs, but Moreno says even that is beginning to change. Democrats have started to make inroads, and Moreno says one Democrat in particular is very popular in the Cuban American community - another New Yorker named Hillary Clinton.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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