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Mitt Romney: Winning Among Florida Hispanics Could Translate Nationally

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Mitt Romney speaks to voters in Hialeah, Fla., on Jan. 29.
Mitt Romney speaks to voters in Hialeah, Fla., on Jan. 29.

TAMPA, Fla. -- Mitt Romney said on Tuesday that a win in Florida would mean good things for his chances to win Hispanic voters overall. That might be wishful thinking.

"In some respects Florida is a microcosm of the entire nation because people retire here from all over the country, it has a large Hispanic community as well, so doing well in Florida is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally," Romney told reporters on Tuesday morning outside a campaign office in Tampa. "So for me, Florida's big."

Winning among Hispanic voters can make a big difference in the primary results here -- Arizona Sen. John McCain's victory over Romney in Florida in 2008 can be partially attributed to his success with Latinos in Miami-Dade County, and Romney received 54 percent of the Hispanic vote to win Florida in 2012, according to the National Election Pool exit poll. But support from Hispanics in Florida doesn't necessarily translate to other states.

Because the demographics of Hispanic voters in Florida differ from other states, Romney's success with them here doesn't ensure that he'll do well with them in general. There are 2.1 million voting-eligible Hispanics in Florida, making up 16 percent of the voting-eligible population of Florida in general, according to Pew Hispanic Center. The same Pew report found that Mexican-Americans make up about 50 percentage points less of the total Hispanic population in Florida than they do in the nation, meaning Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans are disproportionately represented here.

That's good for Republicans. Most of the state's Hispanic Republican population lives in Miami-Dade County, and Romney has devoted time visiting majority-Hispanic neighborhoods there, including a Sunday stop in Hialeah, Fla., where he was joined by Cuban-American Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), as well as Mario's brother and former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Romney's son Craig, who speaks Spanish, introduced him to the crowd, holding up his 5-year-old son Parker to say "Hola." During that speech, Romney discussed his strong opposition to the leaders in Cuba, a nation many Miami-area Hispanic voters fled.

"Some of you through your life experiences have seen what happens when countries have a government that becomes too big," Romney said in Hialeah. "This is a president who I think is making America into a European-style social welfare state."

Foreign-born Cuban-Americans in Florida are more likely to vote Republican than Hispanic voters nationwide. A poll by Latino Decisions, a non-partisan polling firm, found that foreign-born Cuban-Americans in Florida are more likely to say that cutting taxes would be the best path toward helping the economy, and 55 percent said President Barack Obama is to blame for current economic problems. By comparison, a majority of Florida Latinos in general believe that former President George W. Bush, a Republican, is to blame the bad economic climate, according to the poll.

While the difference between Hispanic voters is often attributed to varying views on unauthorized immigration, the gap between between the opinions of Cuban-American and Latino voters in general is closing. That narrowing is in part because U.S.-born Cuban-Americans are more supportive of comprehensive immigration reform, Latino Decisions found.

Still, immigration reform is a major issue for Latino voters in general, although not the most important. Most Hispanic voters support paths to legal status for some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, and even more support the Dream Act, which would allow some young people who entered the U.S. as children to remain and work toward citizenship.

While Romney and Gingrich were pressed on their views on unauthorized immigration in Florida, mostly in debates and interviews with Univision's Jorge Ramos, the issue was largely ignored in speeches. But the issue of unauthorized immigration is likely to come up in the general election, in which Obama will almost certainly contrast his views on paths to citizenship with those of the Republican nominee. (Support for Obama among Latino voters has dropped since 2008, but he still leads all of the Republican candidates, Pew Hispanic Center found in December 2011 poll.)

Romney's rhetoric on undocumented immigrants, such as saying he would veto the Dream Act, could hurt him in the long-run, some Republican strategists have said. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), for example, said in Miami on Friday that the GOP must change their rhetoric, though the comment was not directed at Romney specifically.

A Romney adviser who was not authorized to speak for the campaign said Romney will amend his message to Hispanic voters slightly as the race moves into other states, such as Nevada and Colorado, with more Mexican-Americans. In those states, Romney can appeal to those voters by continuing to discuss the economy and education, pointing to high unemployment rates and low graduation rates among Latinos, he said.

Romney will "have to deal with the Dream Act" and immigration issues, but may be aided by Obama's failure to pass any type of immigration reform, the adviser said.

"I think the best issue that [Romney] can go out there and talk about is, 'Look, I can sympathize with the issue of immigration and the Dream Act, but if we can't get this community back to work, then nothing else matters," he said.

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