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."

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.