Cuban-American Vote A Key To Victory In Florida GOP Primary
Mar. 10, 1996
MIAMI (AP) _ Republican presidential candidates who visit Florida every four years understand that Cuban American voters in Little Havana are very motivated, very loyal to the GOP and very accurate in picking a winner.
All the top candidates have come courting this year or sent their regards, but the favored candidate in Miami's exile community for Tuesday's Florida primary is GOP front-runner Bob Dole.
``He has all the credentials _ as an American, as a veteran of World War II,'' said John Villada, a 57-year-old Korean veteran who turned out to see Dole speak at a memorial service for four exile fliers shot down by Cuban fighter jets over the Florida Straits. ``He will be our future president.''
In 1980, about 80 percent of the Cuban exiles chose Ronald Reagan from a crowded field and in 1988, about the same number picked George Bush.
``Our community tends to decidedly vote for one given candidate,'' said Al Cardenas, a Miami businessman and vice chairman of the state GOP. ``Our vote is 12 percent or 13 percent of the overall Republican vote in Florida.''
The solidarity of the Cuban vote combined with the electricity of Cuban exile politics _ marked by its red, white and blue Cuban flags and vehement anti-Castro speeches _ makes Little Havana a compulsory GOP stop.
The community just southwest of downtown is inhabited by the older generation, who talk politics almost constantly at the outdoor domino tables, exile businesses and the walkup cafe windows that serve a steady stream of potent cafe Cubano.
As a crowd of exiles at a Cuban restaurant wildly cheered Dole last week, the senator wryly observed:
``The trouble with this group is that there's no enthusiasm.''
Rival Pat Buchanan stirred up Cuban Americans a day earlier with his talk of Fidel Castro's ``corrupt regime.''
His stands on immigration and isolationism are not popular here, but his aides try to explain that he wants to stop Mexican immigration in the southwest, not Cuban political exiles. Buchanan could draw votes on the strength of his passionate rhetoric and his stand on social issues like abortion, say political veterans here.
Even fading Lamar Alexander got a rousing reception from students and teachers at a private school in Little Havana just hours before he gave up the fight.
Steve Forbes, before arriving in Florida for a weekend of campaigning, sent the message he would advocate a naval blockade of Cuba to stop Russian ships bearing plutonium, should the Castro regime activate a pair of nuclear reactors now under construction.
Politics is extremely personal in Miami, particularly Little Havana.
``My father died in the Bay of Pigs,'' said 45-year-old Armando Sotolongo, referring to the foiled invasion by exiles in 1961 that never got promised air support from President Kennedy.
The issues comes up in conversation here like it was yesterday.
``We have the memory of an elephant,'' Sotolongo said. ``We should condemn the leaders who did this to our people.''
The strategic importance of the Cuban American vote for Dole, who had a 35-point lead in Florida over both of his rivals in a new Mason-Dixon tracking poll released Sunday, goes well beyond Super Tuesday.
Republican candidates traditionally draw up to 80 percent or more of that vote in the general election.
President Clinton has alternately courted and infuriated the exile community with his Cuba policy _ from its secret talks with Castro and the refugee camps in Guantanamo to his latest economic sanctions after the shootdown.
Democrats cannot expect to claim a majority of the Cuban vote in November, but any inroads could hold a key to victory in Florida. A Mason-Dixon poll released this week shows Clinton very competitive with Dole in Florida. The president's 5-point edge was the same as the poll's margin of error.
The Cuban vote is the key to carrying Dade County, which is still majority Democratic. And it helps Republicans offset neighboring Broward County's legions of retired New Deal Democrats.
``Bill Clinton has made up his mind he can make inroads in the Cuban American community,'' Cardenas said. ``He has spent considerably more energy pursuing their vote than history would dictate is advisable.''
Gonzalo Gonzales, a 55-year-old real estate agent, concedes the president helped himself with the steps he took after the fliers were shot down.
``He might get some more votes,'' Gonzales said. ``He did what is necessary and what the law allowed him to do.''
But, Gonzales said: ``This is still Republican territory.''