By Daniel Dombey | Financial Times
Hunched over a cup of sweet Cuban coffee in a diner in South Miami, Amador Lerida cannot make up his mind.
“It’s very difficult,” Mr Lerida mutters through his moustache, as he talks about the two candidates for president. “Politically I’m for [John] McCain, but economically it looks like [Barack] Obama would be better.”
The retired electrician came to Florida from Havana in 1961 and, like many of that first wave of exiles from Fidel Castro’s revolution, found his political home in the Republican party.
But today, Republicans are on the defensive in the southern Florida districts where Cuban-Americans make up a third of the vote. The most common English word in the local Spanish-language newspapers is “foreclosure”, and the construction industry, long a leading source of employment for the local Latino population, is in crisis.
Just down the road from El Rinconcito Latino, where Mr Lerida sips his coffee, is the cruelly named district of Homestead, where foreclosed properties seem to be on almost every street.
Outside the diner, LaToya Eason, who worked in property until the housing bubble burst, says there are four foreclosed properties on her block alone. “My husband just got laid off, and I can’t afford to pay rent,” she says.
The economic crisis has been brewing for more than a year in Florida. But in recent weeks, as the global financial system has gone into convulsions, the aftershocks have shaken up politics in a state that Mr McCain labels a “must win”.
Without Florida, the Republican candidate has virtually no feasible route to the White House, but he has lost the reliable lead he had enjoyed until only a few weeks ago.
Recent polls show Mr McCain essentially tied with Mr Obama, whose campaign is greatly outspending him. With early voting beginning this week, and Mr Obama spending two days here, battle has begun in earnest.
“I have told the Washington media that in Miami-Dade County the Cuban vote is going to be solidly Republican,” Mel Martinez, a Republican senator, told a largely ageing, largely Cuban-American audience at a McCain rally in Miami last week - a note of entreaty entering his voice. “I challenge you to make me look good and not look bad on November 4 [polling day].”
As supporters waved signs accusing Mr Obama of socialism - a word that reminds many Floridians of Cuba’s Mr Castro - Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a local Republican congressman, said: “Florida once again will be decisive and once again South Florida will be decisive for Florida.”
His words evoked the drama of the 2000 presidential race, when Florida decided George W. Bush’s victory over Al Gore by an official margin of 537 votes.
Cuban voters, angry at the Havana policy of the former administration of Bill Clinton, played a central role in that contest.
However, Joe Garcia, the Democratic challenger for the 25th congressional district of southern Florida and former executive director of the anti-Castro Cuban-American National Foundation, says the Cuban-American vote no longer depends as much as it once did on anti-Castro policies and rhetoric.
Instead, ethnically Cuban voters, who now include third-generation US citizens, are looking at a wider range of issues, notably the economy.
“The Republicans thought they were doing well when they were just headed towards a horrific place,” says Mr Garcia. The local economy “is run on credit and building, particularly the Hispanic part. That is coming to a screeching halt and there’s nothing else”.
That creates opportunities for candidates such as Mr Garcia, who is now only a few points behind in a district where the previous Democratic candidate was beaten by a margin of almost 60-40. It could also make all the difference for Mr Obama if he can accumulate big enough margins of victory locally to offset Republican support in areas such as the Florida panhandle, where northern parts of the state border Georgia and Alabama.
The Democrats can count on increased voter registration and well-organised support from black voters, whose churches are busing people to polling booths to ensure a high turnout.
References to the election were never far away at one revivalist meeting last week, where the congregation prayed for Mr Obama to be protected from assassination and then filed out past sample ballots and Democratic election signs.
Still, pooling Latino and African-American votes might prove a challenge for Mr Obama and the Democrats. Florida is not immune to racial tensions, and some white Cuban-Americans highlighted how unusual it would be to cast a vote for someone as different from them in terms of life experiences as the Democratic nominee.
“It’s really surprising that someone who is black and Muslim could come so far,” says Mr Lerida, repeating a durable misconception about Mr Obama’s religion. “You never know how you’re going to vote until you’re at the ballot box. But at the moment, I think I’m probably going to go for Obama.”
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