Hoping to exploit a rift between President Bush and exile leaders, Democrats in Florida and Washington are devising a strategy to undercut the GOP’s Hispanic support.
Democrats in Florida and Washington are devising an aggressive strategy to court typically Republican Cuban-American voters, hoping to exploit a festering rift between President Bush and some exile leaders who say the administration has failed to deliver on campaign promises.
The plan was hatched at a private meeting this week in Miami between local Cuban-American leaders, strategists from the state and national Democratic Party, and at least one key fundraiser for the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Democratic National Committee plans to showcase its potential inroads among Florida Hispanic voters—Cuban and non-Cuban alike—at a major summit being planned for May in Orlando, the political nerve center of the critical Interstate 4 corridor.
The goal: Match or exceed President Clinton’s 1996 performance, in which he snagged 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote and won Florida’s electoral votes.
‘‘We think the president has taken that community for granted,’’ said Nelson Reyneri, a senior DNC strategist and the party’s point man on Hispanic outreach, who arranged the Wednesday meeting in Miami and spent Friday in Orlando preparing for the May gathering. “If we peel off even a small amount of the Cuban-American vote, we win.’‘
The strategy, which follows months of controversy among Cuban-American leaders of both parties over the Bush administration’s decision to repatriate 12 Cuban boat hijackers last summer, portends a potentially defining battle of the 2004 election: the quest to divide a key GOP bloc in the state that decided the 2000 race by just 537 votes.
There are implications for the state’s nationally watched U.S. Senate race, as well, which features prominent Cuban-American candidates from both parties.
USING THE MEDIA
Several participants in the conversations said Friday that the strategy will involve large expenditures of cash—most likely corporate and unlimited ‘‘soft money’’ to be raised by the state party and independent committees—to pay for a massive ad campaign in English and Spanish.
The message, according to an analysis conducted for the group and obtained by The Herald, would allege that, despite Bush’s promises to crack down on the Castro regime, there have been increases in travel to the island and trade with the U.S. while the treatment of people living in Cuba has worsened.
Democratic strategists said Friday the ads would be aimed at younger Cuban Americans, moderates and liberals whose parents have backed Republicans since the Bay of Pigs but who are open to a new approach to curbing communism in Cuba.
Bush and his aides have already felt the heat.
Sensing their vulnerabilities, the president and other senior administration officials have rushed in recent months to shore up their Cuban base, rolling out plans to harden the line on trade and, this week, to crack down on pleasure-boat trips to the island.
Under pressure from some Cuban-American Republican state legislators who sent the White House a letter suggesting the president could lose substantial support if he did not act fast, the president created a special commission last year to examine other ways to enforce travel and trade restrictions while promising again to veto any legislation that would end the embargo.
A Bush spokesman on Friday reiterated the administration’s efforts on Cuba, suggesting the Democrats’ motives were more cynical than genuine.
‘‘It’s obvious that this is just a political stunt that looks petty in light of this president’s policies,’’ said Reed Dickens, a campaign spokesman.
Even Democrats admit that winning a big number of Cuban-American voters is unlikely, given the popularity among all the state’s Hispanics of the president’s brother, Gov. Jeb Bush.
In 2000, Democrat Al Gore won non-Cuban Hispanics outside of South Florida, but Bush won more than 80 percent of the 400,000 Cuban-Americans who voted. Jeb Bush took Hispanics again in 2002, and has been carefully massaging his party’s relationship with that voting bloc ever since.
Jeb Bush ‘‘is his brother’s biggest asset,’’ said pollster Sergio Bendixen, an expert on Hispanic politics who works for Democratic candidates and attended this week’s strategy session. “People who underestimate the popularity of Jeb Bush among all Hispanics, not just Cuban-Americans, just don’t understand the relationship that he has built.’‘
But others involved in the meetings say they think there is an opening this year to forever alter the political dynamic in South Florida.
One of the participants was a retired Republican business executive, Fernando Amandi, a Cuban-American who voted for Bush in 2000 but last year hosted a fundraiser for Kerry at his Palm Beach County home. ‘‘I have grown disenchanted and disgruntled and anguished about the direction of our country,’’ said Amandi, who held senior executive jobs at American Express, Citibank and Motorola.
Amandi said Kerry “denounces the oppression in Cuba, and looks forward to engaging the entire Cuban-American community both here and the dissident movement in Cuba, as well as the international community.’‘
Kerry has a mixed record on Cuba.
He has both criticized and supported different aspects of the U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions. Once, he was quoted expressing frustration about the restrictions, saying they existed solely because of “Florida politics.’‘
Asked in a Herald interview last fall about increasing contact with Cuba through trade and travel, Kerry said: “These are things that help undermine the isolation that in my judgment helps Castro.’‘
Still, some Democratic strategists say Kerry could offer a refreshing approach that reflects the new reality that Cuban-Americans are no longer single-issue voters, nor do they all agree on the importance of the embargo.
‘‘The embargo has not worked. That’s my personal opinion,’’ said Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat, who attended this week’s strategy session.
“Others might agree or disagree. This place has changed.’‘
Though it was dominated by talk of the Cuban-American electorate, Wednesday’s meeting featured a cross-section of heavy-hitting Hispanic leaders and political activists.
The participant list included Cuban American National Foundation Director Joe Garcia and Lorenzo Roccia, a Venezuelan venture capitalist who lives in New York, in addition to Reyneri, Martinez, Amandi, Bendixen and two staffers from the Florida Democratic Party.
‘‘There was direction and vision,’’ Garcia said.
“It was harmonious, which is unusual for all things Cuban.’‘