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Latino Republicans Abandon Key 'Latino Issues' To Endorse Mitt Romney In Florida

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Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney listens to Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) as he participates in the
Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney listens to Cuban-American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) as he participates in the "US-Cuba Democracy PAC Event" at Miami-Dade College in Miami, Florida, Jan. 25.

As GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney gears up for the Florida primary, he has garnered endorsements from a few of the state's key Hispanic politicians -- despite his draconian positions on emotionally charged issues for the Latino community, like the Dream Act and immigration reform.

None of the endorsements are more important, of course, than what The Miami Herald calls the "ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta": Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, brothers, and the latter a former congressman. Last week, the trio gave up a little Latin love for former Massachusetts Gov. Romney, a candidate they snubbed in 2008, instead endorsing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who advocated immigration reform.

Appearing in a new Spanish language radio ad called "Estoy," or "I Am," the trifecta threw its weight behind a candidate that rival Newt Gingrich has described as "anti-immigrant" and that critics are calling "two-faced" towards the Latino community.

In the radio endorsement, Lincoln Diaz-Balart says he believes Romney "has the greatest opportunity to win." On television, Ros-Lehtinen says Romney has a "vision to restore the country's national security," and Mario Diaz-Balart says Romney believes in "us."

The Cuban-American community makes up a sizable portion of Florida's population, and has traditionally held an outsized -- and conservative -- influence on the state's some 1.5 million Latino voters. On issues related to illegal immigration, however, Romney doesn't speak for most Latino voters. Although the three Cuban-American politicians have been advocates of comprehensive immigration reform and passing the Dream Act, Romney himself has taken a hard line in the opposite direction. Along with "being strong on enforcement," Romney has promised to veto the Dream Act, a law that would give legal status to some undocumented immigrants.

Support for the Dream Act reaches 91 percent among Latinos and "when it comes to better border security and stronger enforcement of immigration laws, the general public is nearly three times as likely as Hispanics (29% versus 10%) to say this should be the priority for dealing with illegal immigration," according to a recent Pew Hispanic Center report.

Ros-Lehtinen says she doesn't necessarily agree with Romney on issues that have become secondary for voters.

"Although I don't agree with Romney's position on the Dream Act, this election will hinge on the economy and Americans' abilities to find jobs," Ros-Lehtinen told The Huffington Post. "Immigration issues will always be important to certain groups but the downturn in our economy is of utmost concern."

Mario Diaz-Balart told The New York Times that immigration was "becoming a secondary issue."

"People don't want to talk about people who are here illegally when people who are here legally don't have jobs," he said.

Some skeptics, however, say Romney won the Cuban-American trio's endorsement by default. Although the same three politicians endorsed McCain in 2008, based largely on his immigration platform, there seems to be no obvious choice in the current field for conservative Latinos.

Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, believes Latino politicians in Florida have endorsed Romney in efforts to unite and stabilize a fractured party.

"Those three in particular have had a history of supporting measures like the Dream Act ... but everyone wants stability in the Republican party and they likely think Romney is the most likely to provide that," Ramos said to The Huffington Post.

Freshman Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, key Republican Florida politicians with high Latino pull, have proclaimed themselves neutral in the GOP primary races.

Ramos also suggested that the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ros-Lehtinen may be hedging their bets with early endorsements in hopes that Romney gets the nomination.

"The Republican party being what it is, minorities likely rise quickly, and it's likely they'd be rewarded by the party once everything falls into place," Ramos said. "I'm sure that's part of their calculations."

But sticking their necks out too far may have a price with the Latino community. DeeDee Garcia Blase, HuffPost blogger and founder of the Tequila Party, a Republican Latino party in Arizona, says the three politicians are betraying the Latino community.

"Diaz-Balart insults the intelligence of Latinos living outside of Florida," she wrote in a post for HuffPost LatinoVoices. "Cuban Republican politicians in Florida appear to be increasingly out of touch with the Mexican-Americans who account for a sizable chunk of the Latino population pie."

While nationally comprehensive immigration reform and the Dream Act are likely to hold sway with many Latino voters, they may resonate less with Florida's 450,000 Hispanic Republicans, due to the high number of Cubans whose communities are less affected by such issues.

Rick Sanchez, a former CNN anchor, wrote in a blog for HuffPost LatinoVoices, " As a Cuban-American who grew up in Miami, I can tell you that a candidate's position on the Dream Act doesn't matter one bit in Florida politics."

Statewide, Mexican-Americans make up only 9 percent of Latino eligible voters in Florida, while Cubans make up 32 percent and Puerto Ricans 28 percent, according to a recent Univision poll. In all, about 11 percent of the state's Republicans are Hispanic. Almost 60 percent of them are in South Florida, and many are Cuban-American.

While at first glance, the segment may seem small, political strategists consider Latino Republicans to be a swing voting group in the nation's largest swing state. Some say Romney's early efforts to capture the Latino vote in Florida are evidence that he's learned his mistakes.

Simon Rosenberg, the president and founder of the NDN & New Policy Institute, says that Romney is working hard for the Hispanic vote this year after ending his campaign in 2008 having won only 15 percent of the Latino vote in Florida. McCain won more than half the Latino vote and gained the endorsement of the Diaz-Balart brothers and Ros-Lehtinen.

"Romney's in much better shape than he was four years ago. He lost the Latino vote by forty points, essentially ending his campaign in 2008," Rosenberg told The Huffington Post.

"This year he's captured some key Cuban-American endorsements, and Newt Gingrich is a much weaker candidate than McCain," Rosenberg said. "Things are looking pretty good for Romney right now."

Sanchez, however, thinks Florida Latinos should unite on the issue of immigration with their Mexican-American and Southwestern counterparts.

"Regardless of whether Cubans see themselves as being different than Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Hondurans or other Hispanics, the fact is that the rest of the world -- the media, politicians, businesses -- tend to see us as one big homogeneous group," Sanchez wrote.

"And so whether we like it or not, these are our issues."

SLIDESHOW: Leading Latino Politicians In The U.S.

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