Reuters

Democrats are pouncing on what they say is a slip in support for President Bush among Florida’s Cuban Americans, who backed him overwhelmingly in 2000 and have been staunchly behind Republicans in presidential elections.

The Democrats don’t expect their presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, to win the Cuban American vote in the Nov. 2 election. But because the group is so large, just making inroads would translate into a handy boost in a battleground state that was decided by only a few hundred votes four years ago.

Pollster Sergio Bendixen, who has conducted surveys for the campaign group the New Democratic Network, said he saw a reasonable chance for Kerry to garner 25 percent or even 30 percent of the Cuban American vote.

Bush won 82 percent of the 450,000 Cuban American votes cast when he beat Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes to clinch the state’s electoral college votes and the White House in 2000.

The president’s supporters say the Democrats, who set up a campaign office in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana district as part of their effort to push into Republican territory, are indulging in wishful thinking if they think Cuban American support for Bush is slipping.

“President Bush will overwhelmingly win the support of the Cuban American community,” said Al Cardenas, a lawyer and former state chairman of the Republican Party.

“Democrats have no choice but to come and fight for every vote. If this were anywhere else but Florida, they would have written off our community a long time ago.”

Cuban Americans, who have traditionally viewed Republican candidates as tougher on Cuban President Fidel Castro, turned out in force and felt they were crucial to Bush’s narrow victory in 2000. Their vote was galvanized after President Bill Clinton in June that year angered the exile community by sending motherless Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez back to live with his father on the communist-run island, rather than letting him stay in Miami.

Some exile politicians told Bush last year he could not count on support again unless he matched strong talk on Castro with action.

Part of the administration’s response came in May, when Washington tightened existing travel restrictions to Cuba, limiting trips home by Cuban Americans to once every three years and only then to see close relatives.

Many hard-line exiles, who came to the United States in the 1960s and have been the driving force behind the 4-decade-old economic embargo on Cuba, applauded.

But the move was unpopular among many Cubans who came to the United States in more recent years and still want to stay in touch with relatives. Democrats called the measures a cynical ploy to lock in the hard-line vote.

“The measures were targeted to anger those who have no votes, which speaks volumes about this administration,” said Joe Garcia, a Cuban American senior adviser with the New Democratic Network, noting that many of those opposed to the moves would be newer arrivals who did not yet have citizenship or a vote.

A July poll commissioned by the William C. Velasquez Institute showed Bush would win 66 percent of Cuban American support in Florida but also gave Kerry only 16 percent. It said 30 percent of Cuban Americans surveyed strongly opposed the new measures.

Apart from the travel controversy, analysts have long pointed to changing political views among Cuban Americans as the proportion of newer arrivals, and of people born in the United States, grows. The younger group is seen as having less hard-line views on Cuba, or as being less influenced by Cuba policy than by non-Cuban issues such as the economy.

“There’s a growing diversity within this growing bloc,” said Damian Fernandez, a political scientist at Florida International University, adding “the president did not gain any ground” with the travel measures.

The violence that dogged the exile scene in the early years after Castro’s 1959 revolution has dissipated, but hard-liners still denounce advocates of more contact with Cuba and the political rhetoric can be vitriolic.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, one of three Cuban American Republican congressmen from south Florida, dubbed Kerry supporters “Castro apologists.”

But Raul Martinez, mayor of the Miami area city of Hialeah and a Kerry supporter, said a recent visit to a Cuban restaurant brought people “coming and telling me they would vote Kerry. But a lot of people will tell you in whispers.”