By Kevin Gray
MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidates courting Florida's influential Latino vote have hit the campaign trail lambasting Cuba's Fidel Castro and heaping criticism on U.S. policy toward the communist island.
But the candidates' focus on the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community in South Florida may be overlooking a changing Latino vote in which the underlying political views are no longer seen through the prism of U.S.-Cuban relations.
An important voting bloc in a crucial swing state, Florida's Hispanic community has grown more diverse and now includes a fast-growing Puerto Rican population, an influx of South Americans and a rising number of Mexicans.
The evolving demographic will likely force both Republican and Democratic politicians to rethink ways to woo Florida Latino voters.
"For years we lived in this world that was all about the Cubans," said Steve Schale, a Tallahasee-based Democratic strategist. Florida's "changing mosaic is going to have an impact on our politics."
Florida's primary on Tuesday provides Republican candidates the first opportunity to test their support among Hispanics, who nationwide could account for as much as 10 percent of the vote in November's general election, analysts say.
Republicans will be able to count on a base of conservative Cuban-Americans who make up the majority of Florida's 400,000-plus Hispanic Republican voters, many based in Miami.
Overall, Latinos represent more than 23 percent of Florida's population, but only 13 percent of the state's 11.2 million registered voters.
Across Florida, from sprawling housing subdivisions in and around Orlando to coastal communities in Tampa, the shifting Latino makeup is apparent.
Puerto Ricans, now the second largest group of Hispanics closely behind the Cubans, comprise a growing part of the population in the Orlando area. Near Tampa, Florida's third-biggest city, Mexicans have overtaken Cubans but trail Puerto Ricans as the most prominent Hispanic group.
Some elementary schools in the city of Clearwater report having a 40 percent Hispanic enrollment, overwhelmingly of Mexican origin. "That's going to have implications years down the line when they get old enough to register to vote," said Robin Gomez, the city's auditor and Hispanic-Latino liaison, who himself has Mexican roots.
Even in Miami, the heart of the Cuban-American community, gradual population changes can be seen. In the western suburb of Doral, a large number of Venezuelan and Colombian restaurants highlight an expanding South American population that now makes up 46 per cent of Doral's residents.
The shift is significant for Florida, home to the third-largest Latino population in the United States after California and Texas.
As a state, California traditionally votes for Democrats in presidential elections and Texas backs Republicans, meaning Florida's Latino voters can carry particular weight in an election year.
"When you break out voters by nationality, the Cubans are still Number One but they are no longer the only game in town," said Fernand Amandi at Bendixen & Amandi, a political consulting firm in Miami that has been retained by Democratic President Barack Obama's campaign.
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly a third of Florida's Hispanic voters are of Cuban descent, while 28 percent are of Puerto Rican origin. Mexican-Americans represent 9 percent of voters.
Furthermore, in recent years the Republicans' stranglehold on Cuban-American voters has been slipping.
In 2008, Obama won Florida's Hispanic vote by 57 percent to 42 percent for Republican John McCain and surprisingly lost the Cuban-American vote by only 6 percentage points. He also captured the non-Cuban-American Hispanic vote with 65 percent to 33 percent.
But polls show Obama slipping among Florida Hispanics, likely to due to their higher unemployment rate, which some analysts estimate at around 13 percent - more than 3 points higher that the state average.
"Hispanics in Florida are acutely aware of Obama's failed economic policies and their devastating effects," said Bettina Inclan, director for Hispanic outreach with the Republican National Committee.
JOBS, EDUCATION AND HEALTHCARE
Jobs, education and healthcare rank as the issues that many Hispanics cite as most important to them, said Mark Lopez, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate director.
Miami's Cuban-Americans remain a reference for Republican candidates looking to win over Latino voters. Nearly 11 percent of Florida's Republican voters are Hispanic and almost 60 percent live in Miami-Dade county, making them a key voting Republican bloc.
Republican candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all made appeals to Cuban voters during campaign stops in Miami. Both Romney and Gingrich criticized Obama's Cuba policy that has lifted some U.S. travel restrictions to the island and vowed tougher measures against the Cuban government.
Ivan Jimenez, a 35-year-old online advertising manager who lives in Doral and is of Puerto Rican descent, said the candidates missed a chance to reach out to other Latinos.
"They focus heavily on the Cubans," said Jimenez, who described himself as an independent. "Miami is becoming more of a melting pot. It's time for all of the politicians to start seeing it that way."
Led by the Puerto Rican community, a non-Cuban-American electorate began to take shape in Florida five years ago.
Since then, the total number of Hispanics registered as Democrats versus Republicans has widened by nearly 100,000 voters, reversing a trend that as recently as 2006 showed more Hispanics in Florida identifying themselves as Republicans.
Many Puerto Ricans are Democrats or Independents and their numbers have nearly doubled in the last ten years, analysts say.
But they can also be swing voters.
"Puerto Ricans vote for the person, not the party," said John Quinones, a Republican and chairman of the Osceola County Commission, who in 2002 became the first Republican Puerto Rican elected to Florida's state house.
Quinones said he was urging Republican leaders to do more to broaden the party's appeal to Puerto Ricans to bolster its support among Latinos.
"I get the sense they group Hispanics into one lump category," he said. For Puerto Ricans, "the issues may not be the same as the issues that affect Cubans in Miami."
"You have to recognize there are nuances and different issues that may be more prevalent to Puerto Ricans than to Mexicans and other Hispanics," Quinones said.
In a sign that some Republicans may be taking note of the changes in Florida, Gingrich addressed a group of Puerto Ricans during a campaign stop in Orlando last week.
He vowed to support Puerto Rico's bid for statehood if Puerto Ricans vote later this year in a plebiscite to change the island's status from its current one as a U.S. territory.
But he also peppered his speech with calls for a "Cuban Spring" whose aim he said would be to change the government in Havana.
The line barely drew any applause.
(Additional reporting by David Adams, Tom Brown in Miami and Barbara Liston in Orlando; editing by Christopher Wilson)