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Maribel Hastings

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In Florida, Romney Finds the "Lucky Corner"

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 7:53 am

They call Casa Marín, "the lucky corner" ("La Esquina de la Suerte" in Spanish), and the restaurant's owner assures me that candidate Mitt Romney's visit to his establishment on Sunday guarantees his triumph in today's Republican primary.

"He's already won," declared Diosdado Marin. Marin's restaurant is located in the heart of Hialeah, called "la Ciudad de Progresa" or "Progress City."

On the eve of the Republican primary, numerous polls favor Romney over former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Both campaigns have adjusted their message to appeal to Cuban, Cuban-American voters and other Latinos, particularly Puerto Ricans in Central Florida.

Hispanic voters constitute 11% of all registered Republicans throughout the state of Florida, but here in Miami-Dade County in the southern part of the state, where the Cuban and Cuban-American vote reigns supreme, they constitute 72% of Republican votes. Spanish-language television and radio ads are the order of the day.

And in Florida, which will play a central role in the triumphs and defeats of candidates from both parties, the Latino vote is anything but monolithic.

Pollster Matt Barreto of Latino Decisions calls them "the three Latino electorates" within Florida: the Cuban and Cuban-American voters in the South; Central Florida's Puerto Ricans; and other Latinos, who also live in the central part of the state. There's some diversity of positions among Cubans and Cuban Americans due to their experiences: those who arrived here more than 50 years ago; those who came in stages during the Mariel boatlift and similar efforts; those who have recently arrived; and the generations born here in the United States, whose politics tend to be more moderate. The rest of the Latino vote consists mostly of Puerto Ricans in the central part of the state, but there are also Mexicans, South Americans and Central Americans.

If anything unites these groups, it's the economy.

And according to Latino Decisions' most recent poll, conducted with Univision and ABC News, they're also united in support of immigration measures such as the DREAM Act, which is supported by 75% or more of Latinos across all demographic groups. Barreto writes that "Likewise, when we examine comprehensive immigration reform, a majority of all Latinos in Florida support an earned path to citizenship, though U.S. born Cuban Americans, and Latinos in Central Florida are somewhat more likely to support CIR."

Romney and Gingrich have taken harsh stances on immigration. Both oppose the DREAM Act in its current form, supporting only the military component of the bill--which is to say, they want a path to legalization to young people who serve in the armed forces, but none for those who want to pursue higher education.

Both also oppose comprehensive immigration reform, although Gingrich has spoken of some "humanitarian" relief--which wouldn't include a path to citizenship--for people who have lived here for more than two decades and have established community ties. Even Gingrich has mocked Romney's proposal of "self-deportation," which assumes that undocumented immigrants will get their affairs in order, return to their native countries and try to reenter the United States by legal means--"getting in line," he says, though no such line exists. Gingrich has called Romney "anti-immigrant."

But for some Cubans and Cuban-American voters, the candidates' immigration positions don't dim their appeal. Neither does the tone of the debate, which many consider insulting to the whole community.

"That's not true. This is a nation of laws," declared Juan Carlos Santana, who hasn't decided whether he'll support Gingrich or Romney. "But realistically, to beat Obama, I think that Romney has a better chance of attracting the independent vote and conservative Democrats. Romney will beat Obama in Florida, and if Marco Rubio is on the ballot--checkmate."

In Casa Marin, former Republican Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart--a supporter of the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform and the author of what he calls "the last amnesty passed by Congress" (a law called NACARA)--defended the support he and other Cuban-American politicians have given Romney despite his immigration positions.

"On that issue we disagree with him, but the reality is that until the economic situation changes in the United States and people feel that we're on the road to a genuine economic recovery, we can't deal with the immigration issue, and there's no one more strongly in favor of immigration reform than I am," Diaz-Balart told America's Voice.

And the man who can change the economic situation, Diaz-Balart added, is Romney.

Asked if he expects Romney to temper his immigration stances if he becomes the nominee, and has to seek the Hispanic support he'll require in the general election outside the confines of Florida, Diaz-Balart assured us that "my point of view will always be heard during the campaign, and afterwards, if he wins, within the administration."

And asked if Romney's immigration positions will make it harder for him to win the 40% of the Latino vote a Republican nominee needs to win the White House, the Congressman responded: "no, if people understand what I said earlier: that if we don't change the economic climate, we can't start the immigration debate."

But plenty of polls, like the most recent Latino Decisions offering, note that Republicans have a problem attracting Latino votes at the national level.

This visit to Hialeah's "lucky corner" won't be the last one Romney and the Republicans need to make.

Columns and blog posts in Voz Y Voto 2012 series can be read in English here.