Now it's the Latinos' turn.
After contests in early primary states where the Hispanic vote was too small to be significant, now comes Florida, where it's too large to be ignored. "It's important," Florida International University political science professor Kathryn DePalo told The Huffington Post. "Especially the Cuban-American vote. It's a huge voting bloc. If you can get most of those on your side, it's critical."
The candidates know. The two front-runners in the Republican race have been sipping cafecitos, carving lechón and placing Spanish-language ads aimed at the state's Latinos into heavy rotation.
Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney both spent significant amounts of time on immigration issues during the two Florida debates. They've done one-on-one sit-down interviews with the most important anchor in Spanish-language television, Univision's Jorge Ramos. And Friday, they each spent a half hour making their case to a crowd of nearly 400 influential conservatives at the Hispanic Leadership Network's "Inspiring Action" conference in Miami.
It's a pitched battle for what, if history is a guide, could be a decisive demographic.
"As the Hispanic vote goes, Florida will go," Alci Maldonado, who chairs the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, told the Boston Globe. "And as the Florida vote goes, the country will go."
While Florida is one of several swing states that could prove critical in the 2012 election, it is among the largest. Almost 11 percent of Florida's Republican voters are Hispanic, and nearly 60 percent of them live in Miami-Dade County.
Hispanic voters proved crucial in the 2008 Republican primary race. That time, Romney lost Florida to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) by 97,000 votes. More than half of that margin came from the Miami-Dade area, where McCain won by 52,000 votes. Statewide, McCain got 51 percent of the Latino vote, while Romney got 15 percent.
This time, Romney is redoubling his efforts to avoid a repeat of the results of four years ago. Sunday he was in one of the most Hispanic cities in Florida, Hialeah, where Hispanics account for 95 percent of the population. He was greeted by the sounds of guitarists playing "Guantamera" and surrounded by the smell of roast pork, which he helped to cut up and serve to patrons.
The former Massachusetts governor in South Florida has collected the coveted endorsements of three of the most influential Cuban-American politicians in the state, the self-described "Three Amigos," Florida Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and former congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
On Friday, Romney announced the endorsement of Puerto Rico's Gov. Luis Fortuño, which may have some impact among Hispanics in the Central Florida corridor stretching from Orlando to Tampa, predominantly made up of Puerto Ricans.
To capture the Latino vote, Gingrich, in turn, is banking on the support of Congressman David Rivera to counter Romney's three Cuban-American friends, and on his Spanish-language outreach.
"We are definitely taking it seriously," Gingrich's Florida campaign director Jose Mallea told The Huffington Post. "We are the only campaign that has a website -- newtpresidente.org -- which is is in Spanish. And it's not just translations that we put up. We actually develop original content for that to speak to Hispanic voters. So I think there's no one in this race that has taken the importance of the Hispanic community more seriously than us."
But it may not be enough.
So few people turned out for a Hispanic town hall that Gingrich held Saturday in Orlando, that he went out to speak to the audience members individually, The Hill reported.
After Florida, though, the Hispanic playing field changes, with large populations of U.S. citizens of Mexican, Central American, Puerto Rican and Dominican descent dominating Latino communities in the rest of the nation. While most Cuban-Americans in the nation live in South Florida, whoever wins their vote in Florida won't have such voters to rely on in other states.
And Romney has drawn the ire of large Latino organizations over his stance on immigration issues -- by opposing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and, until last Monday, promising to veto the DREAM Act, which would offer the children of undocumented immigrants a way to gain citizenship after completing two years of college or military service. Romney said he would support the military service option only.
Somos Republicanos, the nation's largest Hispanic Republican group, has condemned Romney over his conservative positions on immigration reform and thrown its backing behind Gingrich.
Gingrich, former U.S. speaker of the House, advocates a more moderate immigration policy, permitting long-time undocumented immigrants to gain residency. He has promised that no matter what happens in Florida on Tuesday, he's staying in the race until the convention in August.
That could prove a good strategy for him. Some observers believe that his positions on immigration improve his odds in other states with large non-Cuban-American Latino voting populations.
"We think Romney will do better among Latinos in Florida," Bob Quasius of Café Con Leche Republicans told Fox News Latino. "But when he goes west, especially in the southwest, he won’t do well at all."
TAKE A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE WITH 'GREAT MOMENTS IN THE GOP FLORIDA PRIMARY' -- LATINO EDITION:
If not the most memorable moment of the run-up to the Florida GOP primary, the most comical one might to be Mitt Romney's oxymoronic addition to the English language: self-deportation. At a Florida debate and in response to a question regarding if whether to enforce his position on illegal immigration, he would support mass deportations, Romney answered "Well, the answer is self-deportation, which is people decide they can do better by going home because they can't find work here because they don't have legal documentation to allow them to work here." Romney's use of the term 'self-deportation' and his genuine belief in it as a viable means to deal with the 13 million undocumented immigrants who would not be allowed to remain in the U.S., led to substantial social media outcry, an attack by his primary opponent, Newt Gingrich (to be expected), and a measure of agreement from fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Amazing.
Newt Gingrich didn't waste any time in 2012. In early January, he visited Little Havana's Café Versailles restaurant, a traditional stop for politicians looking to rally support among Miami's Cuban-American population. Gingrich drank Cuban coffee and conversed with the restaurant staff, who by now must be used to politicians stopping by to score points among Latino voters. Strangely enough, they applauded once he was finished with his coffee. GIngrich didn't miss a beat and told his audience how President of the U.S. his goal will be "to create a Cuban Spring that is even more exciting than the Arab Spring." He also talked about this stance on immigration, which he qualifies as more "humane" than the positions of his GOP primary opponents. Nothing like spicy politicking to go with your café con leche.
An crucial moment in the Florida race was the endorsement of Mitt Romney by Florida's self-proclaimed "three amigos," Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Lincoln Diaz-Balart. The Miami Herald calls this the "ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta." But this too led to controversy as these three Cuban-American politicians who now support Romney's candidacy -- and its conservative approach to immigration reform and threatened DREAM act veto -- have track records as advocates for comprehensive immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act. "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," said Kristian Ramos, a policy director at the NDN & New Policy Institute, a Washington D.C.-based think tank to The Huffington Post. In the 2008 primary the trio endorsed Sen. John McCain -- over Romney -- due in part to his own advocacy for immigration reform.
A new generation of Latino leaders is emerging in Florida politics. Cuban-American senator, Marco Rubio, is undoubtedly the most well-known figure in this new emerging political group. "Obviously, probably Marco Rubio is on the top of the list in terms of young Hispanics leading the effort in the state," conservative activist Jeb Bush Jr., the son of Florida's former governor and nephew of former President George W. Bush, told The Huffington Post. Rubio's name comes up in every list of possible vice presidential candidates. Thus far, however, he has remained neutral in the primary race. Other Latinos who are gaining influence in Florida's Republican and conservative circles include Rep. David Rivera, who's backing cNewt Gingrich, Florida House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera and state Rep. Erik Fresen.
Last Thursday's GOP debate confirmed that the Latino vote is a dominant factor in the Florida primary. From the earliest moments of the debate, issues such as immigration reform, the DREAM Act, relations with Cuba, Puerto Rico's status, Latinos who could serve in a Republican Cabinet, and more were catnip to the candidates who were each seeking to wow the audience. Gingrich stood strong in his attack that Romney is the most "anti-immigrant" candidate in the GOP race. Romney defended himself by calling the comments "inflammatory and inappropriate." Romney then went on to criticize a Gingrich TV ad as an example of "over the top rhetoric." The debate turned to focus on Cuba a few times, with Romney saying, "It is time for us to strike for freedom in Cuba, and I will do so as president." Gingrich, who had appeared earlier at Florida International University, reiterated his support for a 'Cuban Spring' if he is elected president.
In an effort to win the Latino vote, Newt Gingrich came out with a radio ad in Spanish perfectly attuned to the local audience in his reiterated stance against the Castro brothers' regime in Cuba. Comically, the ad also tried to associate Mitt Romney to the local hatred of Cuba's regime, by criticizing Romney's 2008 use of a phrase often associated with Fidel Castro, "patria o muerte, venceremos," which translates to "fatherland or death, we shall overcome." But, perhaps aware that further down the road, other Latino voters will be more interested in immigration reform than Cuban relations, Gingrich went for broke and labeled Mitt Romney as 'anti-immigrant' in the ad.
While campaigning in Hialeah, Florida Romney talked about the need to defeat the current dictators in Cuba and Venezuela. His son Craig addressed the crowd of Cuban-Americans in Spanish. Romney talked about family values and alluded to when he started dating his wife Ann. Ms. Romney also adresses the crowd saying that she and her husband share the strong family values of the community.
In the Hispanic Leadership Network conference in Miami both Gingrich and Romney delivered speeches in the aims of attracting the conservative Latino voter, specifically Cuban-Americans. Romney spoke about freedom which is a key point for Cubans in the U.S. given that so many fled authoritarian regime in Cuba and were given automatic citizenship in the United States Gingrich also spoke about freedom, as well as highlighting his support for democratic movements.