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Hispanic Vote In Florida: Neither A Bloc Nor A Lock…Puerto Ricans Are Emerging As Florida’s Most Prized Political Commodity…Heinz Kerry Touts Health Care To Hispanics

Hispanic Vote In Florida: Neither A Bloc Nor A Lock


October 17, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

MIAMI, Oct. 16 - 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.

"The presence of Jeb Bush and Martinez will make the president a very tough competitor when it comes to fighting for that Central Florida vote," said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster in Miami. "The Democrats are fighting there with issues, without any personalities. The Republicans are fighting with personalities, with very few issues."

The Bush campaign has run 10 television advertisements in Spanish, some touching on issues like health care and education but others simply painting Mr. Bush as a kindred spirit to Latinos. One plays a song describing him as "someone who knows my problems, my culture," adding, "I'm with Bush because he knows my family."

Mr. Kerry has run fewer advertisements in Spanish, but the New Democratic Network, a Democratic advocacy group, has filled in the gap. Among its anti-Republican advertisements are two aimed at Cuban voters, many of whom have condemned a new policy limiting them to one trip home every three years and restricting cash transfers and gift packages to Cuba.

In one New Democratic Network ad, a Cuban-American woman asks: "How long will they keep brainwashing us? Cuba's problem is something that we, the Cubans, need to resolve. And in the meantime, what are the Republicans doing to solve the problems we have here?"

Still, even the most optimistic Democrats predict that only a small fraction of Cuban voters will switch allegiances in November, especially because Mr. Martinez is on the Republican ballot. In a poll last month for the New Democratic Network, Mr. Bendixen found that 72 percent of Cuban voters supported Bush, compared with 19 percent for Mr. Kerry and 9 percent either undecided or for Ralph Nader.

The same poll, of 800 Hispanic voters in Florida, had 35 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics supporting Mr. Bush, 59 percent Mr. Kerry and 6 percent undecided or supporting Mr. Nader.

A new poll of 800 Florida Hispanics by The Washington Post, Univision and the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute found Mr. Bush leading Mr. Kerry by 61 percent to 32 percent. Mr. Bush drew 81 percent of the Cuban vote, while Mr. Kerry won 42 percent of the Puerto Rican vote and 48 percent of Hispanics who were not Cuban or Puerto Rican.

Random interviews in Miami on Friday demonstrated just how disparate the Hispanic electorate can be. Belkys Gomez, a Cuban-American who works in billing at the University of Miami, said she was still undecided but would probably vote for Mr. Bush.

"The only thing that throws me towards Bush is that I know him," Ms. Gomez, 40, said. "We have a saying in Spanish that says something like 'A bad well known is better than a bad to be known.' No one really knows who Kerry is."

Jose Lugo, a funeral director who is Puerto Rican, said he strongly preferred Mr. Kerry. Of Mr. Bush, he said: "I don't like the way he is conducting the war. I was in the Army for seven years and I don't think he should have rushed into war."

Jeanine Escobar, a restaurant owner from Nicaragua, said she was absolutely for Mr. Bush. "He is against communism and I come from a country that knows communism," she said. "It's not that I dislike Kerry, but he doesn't have our same ideology."

Florida's New Hispanics Are Key To Taking White House: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans And Mexicans Are Swing State's Political Force: Puerto Ricans Are Emerging As The Most Prized Political Commodity


October 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved.

The lime green walls outside the West Tampa Sandwich Shop in Tampa, Florida, are plastered with political signs and the Hispanic men inside are engaged in boisterous debate on the merits of President George W. Bush as they sip steaming cups of cafe con leche.

Though it is highly animated and smattered with Spanish, the conversation is not unlike the myriad political arguments going on across dinner tables and bars throughout the US this election year. It may offer a compelling clue to who will occupy the White House for the next four years.

While the West Tampa Sandwich Shop was once the preserve of Spanish, Italian and Cuban immigrants who came to the city generations ago to work in the cigar industry, it now caters to a diverse group of Hispanics - including Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Mexicans - who are emerging as a new political force in the battleground state of Florida.

For decades, Cuban Americans have played a pivotal role here, swinging to the Republican column a state otherwise divided between liberal voters in the south and rural conservatives in the north.

A surge of immigration from other Hispanic groups over the past decade - from Latin America and north-east US states such as New York and New Jersey - has relegated Cuban Americans to minority status in Florida's Latino community. Cubans are just 31 per cent of the state's 3.2m Hispanics, less than the combined population of Floridians of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent. Demographers believe Florida's Cubans will be further displaced by other Latinos in the future because Cubans in the state tend to be older and have fewer children.

Non-Cuban Hispanics are "the swing part of a swing state", says Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "Both parties are spending a lot of time and a lot of money trying to reach out to them."

The Democrats are particularly energised by the possibility of offsetting the Republicans' Cuban base and emerging with a new one of their own. They have emphasised their commitment to healthcare and education, issues that have won over Hispanics in other parts of the country.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the Democratic candidate, had a campaign stop in Orlando yesterday to meet the Hispanic community to emphasise her husband's commitment to affordable healthcare. Democrats have launched a voter recruitment drive. One progressive group, Mi Familia Vota, claims to have registered 58,000 new voters, often camping outside courthouses where immigrants take the oath of citizenship.

The Bush administration challenged the legality of that tactic through the Department of Homeland Security. They have also played up their commitment to conservative social values. "That's where we have an in-road," says Joseph Agostini, a Republican spokesman in Florida.

The new emphasis on non-Cuban Hispanics has come as fissures appear to be opening in the traditionally solid Cuban-American voting bloc. For decades, Cuban Americans have largely based their loyalty to the Republican party on its harsh stance toward Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader.

Younger generations, however, are looking at issues beyond the longstanding US trade embargo. Republicans have also been stung by a backlash against new rules implemented by the Bush administration this summer to restrict families' visits to relatives on the island.

Despite those cracks, however, Cuban Americans remain a far more unified voting bloc than other Hispanics, many of whom share little more than a common language. While Colombians and Venezuelans, for example, might come to the US because of political strife at home, Mexicans are motivated more by economics.

"It's a very fluid group. I don't think it's by any means a monolith," says Robert Henriquez, a Democratic state representative, as he shakes hands and slaps backs at the West Tampa Sandwich Shop.

Mr Henriquez notes that of the many Latino groups, Puerto Ricans are emerging as the most prized political commodity. They are the largest non-Cuban group, accounting for 18 per cent of the state's Hispanics. Because Puerto Rico is a US territory, they are US citizens and eligible to vote before they arrive in Florida.

Their voting patterns, however, have been unpredictable. While Puerto Ricans helped Al Gore carry Orange County in central Florida four years ago - the first time by a Democrat since the second world war - they also overwhelmingly supported Republican Jeb Bush for governor.

"There's a quirk to the Puerto Rican voter, and that is that they tend to vote for the person, and not the party," Mr Agostini says. He cites John Quinones, a conservative Republican who won a traditionally Democratic district two years ago to become the first Puerto Rican American in the state legislature.

The most telling result from this election may not be whether Florida's non-Cuban Hispanics skew Democrat or Republican but whether they vote at all.

Luis Grajales, a Democratic organiser in Orlando, says Puerto Ricans' voting records have not lived up to their registration figures. "We're not there yet. We don't have the infrastructure that they have down there," Mr Grajales says, referring to Cubans in Miami.

Latest census figures suggest they are on their way.

Heinz Kerry Touts Health Care To Hispanics

The wife of the Democratic presidential nominee speaks on his behalf at a forum in east Orange County.

By Jim Stratton | Sentinel Staff Writer

October 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

With Florida still an election tossup, the wife of Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry spent Tuesday telling members of a key voting bloc that her husband will make health care affordable to every American.

At a forum targeting Hispanic women, Teresa Heinz Kerry said her husband's plan would cover all children, give small businesses the buying power of large corporations and provide government subsidies to companies that help keep their employees healthy.

The plan, she said, would be financed by cutting layers of administration and the billions saved by treating medical problems early.

"We can afford wellness," Heinz Kerry told a crowd of about 130 people at the Puerto Rican Association of Central Florida in east Orange County.

John Kerry has made health care a key element in his bid for the presidency. The issue is particularly important with many women voters, and Heinz Kerry has hosted a series of town-hall meetings on the issue.

Though popular, the subject is fraught with political risk. Attempts by other would-be health-care reformers have yielded mixed results. Moreover, many voters equate Kerry's proposal with former President Clinton's attempt to create a universal health-care program. The candidate -- and his wife -- have taken pains to say that is inaccurate.

"American's don't like to be told what to do," Heinz Kerry said. "This is a program of choices," not "a national health-care plan."

The idea appeals to Mari Pina, an Orange County small-business owner facing $80,000 in medical bills.

Pina, 43, said her husband suffered a heart attack in July. The couple, she said, had no insurance at the time because they had recently moved to Florida from Massachusetts. The state-managed plan they paid for up north, she said, did not transfer here.

Now, they can't get insurance because of her husband's existing health problems.

"We don't have $80,000 in the bank," Pina said. "So we're not sure how we're going to pay it."

Heinz Kerry said individuals with pre-existing medical conditions would be covered under her husband's plan.

"It doesn't matter," she said. "You're a human being; you need help, you get it."

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