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[Jeb] Bush Has Edge with Hispanics

by Maria T. Padilla
of The Sentinel Staff
Published in The Orlando Sentinel, Oct 4 1998

A year and a half ago, a dozen Hispanic leaders from Central, West and South Florida trekked to Coral Gables to meet with Jeb Bush.

Bush had called the meeting, though he was still a long way from declaring a second run for governor. He spent 90 minutes with the group, called the Puerto Rican Caucus of Florida, which now is endorsing Bush.

"It's felt that he's a better candidate for the Puerto Rican community," said Luis de Rosa, a caucus member from Miami.

In their race for the Hispanic vote, Bush and Democratic candidate Buddy MacKay have employed different strategies. As the Coral Gables meeting shows, Bush tapped the Hispanic vote early on -- going so far as to include Puerto Ricans, who historically vote Democratic.

MacKay hasn't met with many Hispanic groups, reflecting a late campaign start in the Hispanic community. MacKay didn't launch his Miami-Dade and Central Florida efforts until last month.

Both candidates are after Florida's increasingly important Hispanic vote. Hispanics make up 11 percent of Florida voters, though in Miami-Dade County the figure is 38 percent.

In Orange County, Hispanics make up 9 percent of all voters, but that percentage is growing: The number of registered Hispanic voters in Orange County has doubled in the past four years.

Hispanics statewide favor Bush by 64 percent, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll conducted for The Orlando Sentinel. About 23 percent support MacKay, and 13 percent are undecided.

Because the group of respondents was relatively small on this question in the poll, the results have a margin of error as high as 11 percent -- much higher than the overall poll. Even allowing for the margin, however, Bush seems to hold a solid lead among Hispanics. Some political experts say Hispanic support for Bush is tied to his Mexican-born wife and his ability to speak Spanish. And many Hispanics agree that those factors are appealing.

"One of the biggest reasons the Hispanic community is happy to help Jeb Bush is that he expresses himself well in Spanish. There is a part of him that is Hispanic. That is very important," said Frank Denis of Orlando. Denis, a Panamanian, last year held a barbecue for Bush.

That argument, however, makes light of Bush's behind-the-scenes work, such as the Coral Gables meeting and many others like it.

Participants in those meetings -- many of them prominent business and civic leaders -- subsequently fanned out into Hispanic communities, lining up votes for Bush. In Central Florida alone, Bush has benefited from several Hispanic breakfasts, barbecues and lunches that began last year. MacKay has not been as visible among Hispanics.

Despite earlier rallies in Broward and Hillsborough counties, MacKay began courting Hispanics in earnest only in September.

In addition to launching the Miami-Dade campaign office last month, MacKay also attended Mexican Independence Day festivities in Miami as well as a Hispanic breakfast in Orlando that featured Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Rossello. Last month, the Florida Democratic Party named Osceola County Commissioner Robert Guevara vice chairman, a move designed to boost MacKay's standing among Hispanics.

"I'm getting Central Florida organized so we can start moving," said Guevara, who is Puerto Rican, as are half of all of Central Florida's Hispanics.

With a month to go before the election, there's little time left to woo Hispanic voters.

"I do think there was a delay in launching the campaign here," said Alonso Rhenals, president of the Colombian-American Democratic Council in Miami.

Rhenals, a lifelong Democrat because of the party's support of minorities, says MacKay may be taking cues from the Florida Democratic Party -- and the party seems to hold outdated assumptions about Hispanics.

For instance, Hispanics are not a monolithic vote, but it seems to Rhenals that Democrats may have written off Hispanics in South Florida because historically it's a Cuban Republican stronghold.

In South Florida, Colombians and Nicaraguans are beginning to rival Cubans in numbers and influence. Colombians are the second-largest group in Miami -- and they tend to vote Democratic.

"The party at the state level has to be more aware of what's happening in the different counties, especially a county like Dade where things change so fast," Rhenals said.

In contrast, Bush's network appears to have informed the campaign about Hispanic differences. This allowed Bush to hone in on newcomers from Puerto Rico, who are less politically established and whose votes may be up for grabs.

"We've put that kind of network together everywhere," said Roland Marante, Bush's statewide Hispanic coordinator.

Many Hispanics, including MacKay supporters, say networking among Hispanics is more important than advertising.

"For me, Hispanics have to know the candidate. That's very important. Hispanics are very sensitive to that," said Guevara, who met with MacKay for two hours before agreeing to endorse him.

Still, the Bush campaign has been heavy on ads, while the MacKay campaign plans to launch its bilingual media soon, said campaign manager Robin Rorapaugh.

Hispanics are sensitive to certain issues in each campaign.

Some Hispanics criticize MacKay for a "poor record" of Hispanic appointments under the two-term administration of Gov. Lawton Chiles.

"I don't know of too many appointments, no prominent positions, no money set aside for increased trade between Puerto Rico and Florida. I'm so dissatisfied," said de Rosa of Miami.

MacKay field coordinator Joe Pena said Hispanics hold 8 percent of positions in Chiles' administration. The state awarded $50 million in contracts to Hispanic businesses in fiscal 1997, he said.

Bush gets a negative reaction from some Hispanics for his school voucher plan, which critics charge may hurt public schools.

"With Bush, the voucher issue doesn't convince me," Guevara said.

But overall, Bush is convincing to most Hispanics. As a Republican, Bush is likely to benefit from the support of older Cubans in the Miami area. They are staunch anti-Castro Republicans, and they are most likely to vote.

Among Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans, former President George Bush's close ties to Luis A. Ferre, patriarch of Puerto Rico's modern pro-statehood party, may help his son Jeb. Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area tend to favor statehood more than their counterparts in the Northeastern states.

Sentinel exit polling during the September primary underscores Hispanic support for Bush. In Orange County, 67 percent of Hispanics favored Bush -- higher than Bush's 62 percent support among non-Hispanic whites.

Guevara and others in the MacKay campaign maintain Hispanics haven't heard MacKay's message against vouchers and for the disenfranchised.

"There might be a tendency to switch, but they haven't heard the message," Guevara said.



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