McCain Courts Cuban Vote in Florida Visit
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The primary calendar being what it may, the political spotlight is now on Florida, which voted months ago, won't vote again for months. But Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are both there today and for good measure, John McCain was there yesterday. They're all thinking about the general election.
The Republican campaigned in Miami and spoke with what has long been one of the state's most important voting blocs - Cuban Americans. Here's NPR's Greg Allen.
GREG ALLEN: Barack Obama's three-day swing through Florida is a not-so-subtle sign that his campaign considers the battle for the Democratic nomination effectively over and that he's now looking to the general election. And Hillary Clinton is here to underscore a key campaign talking point: that Florida matters and that its delegates must be seated.
Senator John McCain's campaign appearance in Miami yesterday was even easier to understand. He was here for one reason and one reason only - to try to nail down his support among an influential group of voters.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Make no mistake, Cuba is destined to be free.
(Soundbite of applause)
Sen. MCCAIN: Cuba is destined to be free.
ALLEN: The occasion was Cuban Independence Dau, and McCain spoke to a group of several hundred, mostly Cuban-Americans at a Miami hotel. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, Cuban-Americans have been a reliable voting bloc for Republicans. They helped George W. Bush win Florida narrowly in 2000 and more comfortably in 2004, and McCain needs them if he's going to carry the state in November.
He told the crowd that he'd maintain the trade embargo and ask the Justice Department to prosecute Cuban officials for crimes against Americans, including the shootdown in 1996 of a Brothers to the Rescue plane, an incident in which four people were killed. He took direct aim not just at Fidel and Raul Castro, but also at his likely Democratic opponent, Barack Obama.
He attacked Obama for saying he'd loosen the embargo to allow Cuban Americans to freely travel and send money to the island.
Sen. MCCAIN: He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro - an unconditional meeting with Raul Castro.
(Soundbite of booing)
ALLEN: McCain said meeting with Raul Castro would be the worst possible signal to Cuba's dictators - that they can simply wait for a change in U.S. policy.
Sen. MCCAIN: I believe we should give hope to the Cuban people, not to the Castro regime. My administration will press the Cuban regime to release all political prisoners unconditionally.
ALLEN: Among Cuban-Americans yesterday, it was exactly the message they came to hear. Ninoska Perez, a popular radio commentator, thanked McCain...
Ms. NINOSKA PEREZ (Radio Commentator): For making it very clear in this community that you will have nothing to do with the Castro regime. And for that, believe me, Florida will be yours.
ALLEN: That's what McCain is hoping for, but changing demographics and opinions in South Florida's Cuban-American community make it far from certain. Florida Democrats celebrated recently when they surpassed Republicans in registering Hispanics. In addition, polls show that a majority of Cuban Americans support loosening restrictions on travel and on sending money to the island.
Joe Garcia is the former head of the Democratic Party in Miami Dade County who's now mounting a challenge to Republican Congressman Mario Diaz Ballard.
Mr. JOE GARCIA: The reality is that if you look at facts on the ground in Cuba and you look at facts on South Florida, people are weary of a policy that is big on rhetoric and short on accomplishments.
ALLEN: There were a lot of gray heads in the crowd at the McCain event but some young people, too. Manny Niebla(ph) is a 25-year-old commercial banker whose parents came to Miami from Cuba in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. He says some of his friends are willing to talk about a new U.S.-Cuba policy, but they're second- and third-generation Cuban Americans.
Mr. MANNY NIEBLA: So maybe to them there's some disconnect towards Cuba. Definitely not towards me. My parents came when they were 30-something years old. You know, to them, that's a big portion of their life. To me, I still feel their pain and I still feel their anguish, and I can relate to that 100 percent.
ALLEN: Barack Obama will make his case to Miami's Cuban-American community on Friday, with another address commemorating Cuban Independence Day. In a place like Miami, that can be a week-long celebration; at least it is in an election year.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
INSKEEP: The more states vote in the primaries and caucuses, the more results you can review at our interactive map, which is at npr.org/elections.
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