01/30/2012 06:07 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2012

Latino Vote 2012: GOP Candidates Act Aggressively To Capture Cuban-American Vote Ahead Of Florida Primary

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 -- -- 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."