Salena Zito

MIAMI — The bustling Versailles restaurant and bakery in Little Havana has a reputation for serving savory pastries, sweet Cuban coffee and politicians who are looking for support among Latino voters.

Along the patio, about 20 Cuban men of varying ages stood this weekend sipping steaming cafecito (Cuban-style espresso) and smoking cigarettes.

"We solve the world's problems," said Miguel Saavedra, who heads the neighborhood's Cuban exile group Vigilia Mambisa.

Saavedra said he met with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and asked him to bring attention to human rights atrocities suffered by Cubans who oppose the Castro regime.

Though Raul Castro succeeded his brother as Cuba's president and head of the country's communist party, Fidel Castro remains a divisive, influential leader.

"I don't know," Saavedra said. "Eleven (U.S.) presidents, 11 administrations (and) still Castro is in power."

As Tuesday's primary approaches, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney appears to hold a comfortable lead over Gingrich — 24 percentage points among Latino voters in a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll released late Saturday.

One in 10 Republican voters in Florida is Latino, Census figures show, and Latin Americans' interest in elections has risen 80 percent since 2000.

Voting patterns show Cuban Americans are the most reliable Republican bloc among the Latino population, said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

Romney won the backing of Lincoln Rafael Diaz-Balart, a former congressman and son of an exiled Cuban politician, and his brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, who succeeded him as representative of Florida's 21st District in 2010.

Both say they believe Romney could best address the nation's economic problems.

"I have a lot of respect for Mitt Romney," Lincoln Diaz-Balart said. "He has the right temperament and ideas to pull the country together and get businesses growing again."

Romney rallied Cuban supporters on Sunday in the parking lot of Casa Marin restaurant in Hialeah, telling the crowd: "The president is out of ideas and out of excuses, and in 2012, he will be out of a job."

In an apparent reference to Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Romney vowed the United States would "stand with strength against despots and tyranny. We will stand with freedom fighters around the world."

Raul Perez, 82, who escaped his native Cuba in 1966, said he finally sees in Romney what he has wanted for years in a U.S. president: "The backbone to take on the Castro regime."

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.