MIAMI-To many, the winner of last night's primary in the Sunshine State has practically guaranteed himself the Republican presidential nomination. Erasing his loss four years ago, Mitt Romney, the improbable candidate, won Florida on the way to his coronation as Barack Obama's opponent this November.
His triumph in Florida also marked the official start, in some respects, of the fight for the Latino vote at the national level -- even though there's still some way to go before the end of the primary process.
And while some Republicans understand that they'll need to adjust their message on immigration in order to be competitive in the fight for the Latino vote in a general election, others, including Romney himself, continue to promote hardline positions on the issue.
In Florida the issue of immigration wasn't predominate in a Republican primary where the central voters were Cuban and Cuban-American, concentrated primarily in Miami-Dade County in South Florida.
Romney got 54% of Latinos who voted in the Republican primary, according to exit polls.
But this percentage shouldn't be taken as an indication that Romney has locked up the Latino vote at the national level.
In 2008, Romney lost the Florida primary to John McCain, who won a high percentage of the Latino vote. McCain became the nominee, but lost Florida to Obama in the general election and only won 31% of the Latino vote nationally, after he distanced himself from his immigration reform bill and started promoting hard-line policies.
Romney won in Florida backed by Cuban-American Republican leaders like brothers, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a congressman and an ex-congressman respectively, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. All of them are defenders, advocates and authors of proposals for immigration reform and the DREAM Act; Romney, meanwhile, has rejected both of these proposals, and instead promotes "self-deportation" policies and the military component only of the DREAM Act.
Arguing that the economy is the central issue of this election cycle, some believe, erroneously, that the issue of immigration won't play a role in the general election, and that it won't influence whether and for whom Latinos vote in November.
But the Romney campaign would be making a big mistake to think that its triumph in Florida, with the support of Cuban and Cuban-American voters, means it has the national Latino vote on its side-especially without changing the candidate's immigration positions.
Bear in mind that Cuban-Americans make up only 5% of all Latino voters nationally, and that not even within Florida is the Latino vote monolithic. Bear in mind also that to be competitive against Obama and eventually recapture the White House, Republicans need 40% of the Latino vote-and that recent polls of Latino voters, like one last week from Latino Decisions, Univision and ABC News, have found that in an Obama-Romney matchup, the Republican frontrunner would win only 25%.
The primary campaign is now moving to states out west, where the Latino vote is different from that in Florida. In these states, the negative tone that has dominated the debate among Republicans, combined with Republican support for anti-immigrant state bills and the failure to pass sensible solutions like immigration reform and the DREAM Act, are resented by a Latino electorate for whom immigration is a defining issue.
Even Republican strategist and analyst Alex Castellanos declared last night on CNN that the primary in Florida (which was limited to registered Republicans) was dominated by Cuban-American voters, but now the process moves to states in the West, where "It's a very different story. These are a different kind of Hispanic voter. So all of a sudden, the tone, I think, does make all the difference in the world."
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush has already warned that if Republicans don't change the tone of their message on immigration -- and I would add their substance -- it will mean bad news for Republicans in the general election when they try to win over Latino voters.
On Sunday, we asked former congressman, Lincoln Diaz-Balart, if after Romney won in Florida and began to look toward the general election, he anticipated the candidate would soften the tone of his message and his proposals on the issue of immigration to fight Obama more effectively for the Latino vote.
The ex-congressman, a defender of immigration reform, assured us that "my point of view will always be heard."
If true, it's now incumbent on Romney's campaign, when they talk about strategies to court the national Latino vote, to open their ears wide.