MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And now to politics in South Florida. Cuban-Americans are reliably a Republican group of voters. Three Cuban-Americans from South Florida form a solid Republican block in Congress. But this year, all three are facing tough challenges from Democrats and that's raising questions about whether Cuban- American voters may be shifting away from the GOP.
As part of our series on Latino voters, NPR's Greg Allen reports on the South Florida race that's attracting the most attention.
GREG ALLEN: The fight in the 21st congressional district is the marquee attraction in South Florida, and for good reason. It's a battle of political heavyweights. In one corner, Republican eight-term incumbent Lincoln Diaz- Balart.
LINCOLN DIAZ: When election day comes, Lincoln is going to clean his opponents' clock. (Spanish spoken).
ALLEN: Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln's younger brother, represents the neighboring 25th district. He's facing his own well-funded Democratic challenger. The two brothers often campaign together.
Along with his brother, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Senator Mel Martinez, Lincoln Diaz-Balart is the face of Republican Cuban-American politics in Washington. He was active in trying to Elian Gonzalez's relatives gain custody of the 6-year-old in 2000 before his father took him back to Cuba. And he's been a strong supporter of the Cuban trade embargo, Radio and TV Marti, and other U.S. efforts to undercut the Castro regime. That's what he's mostly known for in Washington and in Miami...
DIAZ: Our brothers and sisters, 90 miles from our shores, in Cube remain brutally oppressed. I will not apologize for our work to help them, to help them be free. I will not apologize for our work for a free Cuba. (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: For decades, Cuban-Americans as a group have made that their single, most important issue in deciding which candidates to support. Diaz-Balart says he expects that will be the case this election as well. Of course, he says, like everyone, Cuban-Americans are concerned about the economy and gas prices.
DIAZ: But if they sense that you are not solid on the issue of freedom for our brothers and sisters in Cuba, you better believe that's important. And that it becomes important in the context of the election, and it will.
ALLEN: But Democrats think they see an opening. For the first time in years, they recently passed Republicans in Florida as the party with the most registered Hispanics. They've even been gaining in Cuban-American neighborhoods. And this year, they have something else, a strong candidate.
Longtime Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez is one of a rare breed in Miami, a successful Cuban-American Democrat in a region controlled by Republicans. And he's not reluctant to court controversy. He supports lifting the restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba put in place by the Bush administration. Polls show it's a position shared by younger Cuban-Americans, and that's a group of voters Martinez is counting on.
RAUL MARTINEZ: They're basically saying, look, enough is enough. Don't hurt the families, don't hurt the people there, because why do the same thing, why do the same thing that Castro does?
ALLEN: That stance hasn't helped Martinez with hard-line members of the community who often vilify him on Spanish-language talk radio. But he's used to the attention. He was first elected mayor of Hialeah in 1981 and went on to serve for more than two decades. But there was a six-year hiatus.
In 1990, he was indicted on corruption charges and convicted, but he won a new trial on appeal. Two subsequent trials ended with hung juries and eventually, the Justice Department dropped the charges. In some places and for some people, a federal indictment and three prosecutions would spell political death, but not in Hialeah and not for Raul Martinez.
After the charges were dropped, he came back and was elected mayor again, serving another 12 years. Today, city hall and one of Hialeah's main streets are named after him.
MARTINEZ: (Spanish spoken)
ALLEN: After 24 years, Raul Martinez is a master of retail politics. This luncheon for senior citizens isn't in Hialeah, but in Miami, yet he still seems to know nearly everybody there. Olga Sorondo says she admires Martinez because she saw what he did for Hialeah, how he built parks and affordable housing and improved the town. But I asked her, what about his race for Congress?
OLGA SORONDO: I am divided. Do you think that I can vote for both? What do you say?
ALLEN: Polls show it's a close race. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted Florida's 21st and 25th districts for fundraising and other help under the party's Red to Blue program. Republicans have reciprocated. The GOP recently announced it would send resources to help both Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart. At stake is the control of some congressional seats and maybe something else. It's an election that could help determine the future of Cuban-Americans as a bedrock Republican voting block.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.