By ABBY GOODNOUGH | New York Times
Defining the Hispanic vote in Florida used to be easy: Cuban immigrants, Republican to the last. But just try boiling it down this election season.
A huge influx of Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and people from Central and South America has diluted the political clout of Cubans, loosening the Republican lock on the Hispanic vote. The state has an estimated 650,000 Puerto Ricans, for example, a group that usually leans Democratic, up from 481,000 in 2000.
Colombians, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are leaning toward Senator John Kerry, polls suggest, though many have registered as independents and the Democrats do not consider their vote a sure thing. Nicaraguans embrace President Bush, and Cubans, while still overwhelmingly Republican, may throw some support to the Democrats for a change.
Little wonder, then, that Florida’s 3.2 million Hispanic residents - the state’s largest minority group, tens of thousands of whom will be first-time voters next month - are among the most coveted voters in the nation this year.
“The message for both parties is, these people can go either way and you’ve got to work it,” said Jorge Mursuli, national director of Mi Familia Vota, a voter registration group that signed up 73,000 Hispanic voters here this year, 40 percent as independents.
Both presidential candidates are feverishly courting the Florida vote as the campaign comes down to the wire - Mr. Bush held three rallies here Saturday and will return Monday and Tuesday, while Mr. Kerry is to campaign in Florida on Sunday and Monday.
Republicans and Democrats have scoured the state to find new citizens, focusing on South Florida, where Central and South Americans have joined the large Cuban contingent, and Central Florida, home to a fast-growing Puerto Rican population. Even finding these potential voters is a challenge, strategists say, because many now scatter through suburbs instead of clustering in urban neighborhoods like Little Havana in Miami.
And unlike blacks, who vote more often as a bloc, Hispanics bring a patchwork of priorities to the electoral table. Cubans care deeply about how Washington deals with Fidel Castro - though even they cannot be defined singularly this year, as many newer arrivals are angry about Mr. Bush’s Cuba policy. Puerto Ricans want to know a candidate’s stance on whether their homeland should become a state. Racial discrimination is a big issue for Hispanics in Central Florida, Mr. Mursuli said, while those in South Florida, whose Latino community is larger and more established, do not experience it as much.
Both parties believe Mr. Bush will win the majority of Hispanic votes in Florida, if only because the Cuban population remains so large - about 450,000 registered voters, compared with about 200,000 for the second-biggest group, Puerto Ricans. But Democratic strategists say their party is pushing for Mr. Kerry to win perhaps 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, potentially a big enough increase over the roughly 34 percent that Al Gore claimed in 2000 to assure a Democratic victory here.
Both campaigns consider Puerto Ricans particularly up for grabs because so many are newly registered and have not formed party loyalties. They supported Mr. Gore in the 2000 presidential election, but went for Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, in his 2002 re-election bid. The conventional wisdom is that the governor appealed to Hispanics more than Bill McBride, his little-known Democratic opponent, because he constantly visited their neighborhoods, speaking fluent Spanish and presenting himself as their friend.
Though Jeb Bush has not done much stumping for his brother, the president, in Hispanic communities - or anywhere, for that matter, because the four hurricanes that devastated large swaths of the state have preoccupied him this campaign season - he made several visits to Puerto Rican communities that were hard hit by the storms, promising financial and emotional support.
And this year, President Bush has another Spanish-speaking surrogate courting Florida Hispanics: Mel Martinez, a Cuban-American who is Mr. Bush’s former housing secretary and the Republican candidate in the race for the seat of Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat who is retiring.
On Friday, the Bush-Cheney campaign said that Al Cardenas, a Cuban-American and former Florida Republican Party chairman, would join Jeb Bush as a co-chairman of the president’s campaign here.
“He wanted to come in and help close the deal, especially as it relates to Hispanics,” said Alberto Martinez, a spokesman for the Bush campaign here.