Salena Zito

In Little Havana's town square, where a crowd gathered at a memorial honoring Cubans who lost their lives in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, teacher Raul Fernandez passed out espresso in paper cups.

Fernandez said he doesn't want to divulge who he supports in this primary. "But I will tell you this," he said, "President Obama has been a disaster — a disaster."

Catherine Wilson, an expert on Hispanic studies at Villanova University, said Latinos in Florida typically "embrace socially conservative views, (but) they tend to be more liberal fiscally."

Latinos account for more than 13 percent of Florida's 11 million registered voters, according to elections data assembled by the Pew Hispanic Center.

"In order to win the Latino vote, candidates must gain that population's trust by emphasizing values that they hold dear: hard work, education, professional success, religion, and the ability to have a flourishing family and community life," Wilson said.

Competing for the Latin American vote is complicated, Wilson said.

In western states, these voters care about illegal immigration. In Florida, where Cuban Americans lead the political conversation, people care more about a candidate's stance on the country's Cuban policy, she said.

Puerto Ricans likely worry about the economy and jobs, said Ana Navarro, a Miami-based Republican strategist, because "issues such as immigration and Castro policies do not affect them."

Statehood is important issue to Puerto Rican voters in Florida, said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist based in Washington.

Gingrich and Romney faced questions on Puerto Rico's statehood at last week's Hispanic Leadership Network conference here. Both said they believe it's an issue the people of Puerto Rico should decide.

Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno, a member of the Republican National Committee, endorsed Romney on Friday. "His support is important," Castellanos said.

Puerto Rico, which holds its primary in mid-March, will send delegates to the national GOP convention.

Many Latinos register as Republicans because the party's tenets of equal opportunity, limited government and social conservatism appeal to them, Wilson said.

Yet nationally, she says, the Republican Party needs to firm up its standing with Latino voters. She points to Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2-to-1 loss to President Obama in 2008 among Latin American voters.

Obama's popularity among Latinos appears to be waning. A Jan. 16-19 poll of 500 registered Latino voters conducted by the Hispanic Leadership Network found six in 10 believe the country is on the wrong track and 51 percent disapprove of Obama's handling of the economy.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.