For the first time since the Kennedy administration, the next U.S. president won't have Cuban President Fidel Castro to deal with when he takes office in January.
Nevertheless, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democrat Sen. Barack Obama have clashed sharply over a post-Fidel policy and on the wisdom of easing the nearly 50-year-old embargo on the island. The fight is spilling over - once again - into politics across the Straits of Florida, where three Cuban-born Republican House members face strong challenges in November.
Democrats have set their sights on Republican incumbents Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in the 18th District, Rep. Lincoln-Diaz-Balart in the 21st District and his brother Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart in the 25th District — stalwarts of the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban-American community. Lincoln-Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen were born in Cuba, Mario Diaz-Balart in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A key question in the contests is whether younger Cuban-Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics will embrace the uncompromising stands long favored by the older generation of Cuban exiles, said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the Cook Political Report. He says the Diaz-Balart brothers face especially difficult races.
The marquee matchup, according to Mr. Wasserman, pits Lincoln Diaz-Balart against fellow Cuban native and former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. Dogged in the past by ethics investigations, Mr. Martinez has proved himself to have a populist touch and boasts a strong political base in Hialeah.
"People in Washington tend to think all these races will turn on Cuba issues exclusively," Mr. Wasserman said. "The three Democratic candidates are on a mission to prove that that is false, that the economy, the war in Iraq, the Bush record also matter."
With Mr. Diaz-Balart and Mr. Martinez both tough, experienced campaigners, "the race in the 21st District might be one of the ugliest in the country," he predicted. "We will see a race that operates in a different universe from the others we're watching."
In the presidential fight, Mr. McCain has touted his "maverick" image, but he is unequivocally backing the Bush administration's hard line in support of the embargo, accusing Mr. Obama of naivete in thinking new President Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's 77-year-old younger brother, presents an opportunity for a new policy tack.
Mr. McCain's views "have been totally consistent," said Adolfo Franco, a top spokesman on Latin American issues for the campaign, at a packed briefing on Cuban issues late last week at the Inter-American Dialogue. "A pariah state like Cuba should not be rewarded until it makes a demonstrable commitment toward democracy, and that hasn't happened."
Dan Restrepo, a senior fellow on Latin American issues at the Center for American Progress and a spokesman for the Obama campaign, argued that the long embargo had failed to undermine the Castro regime and it was time for a new approach.
"We certainly should not reward the repressive regime in Cuba, and maintaining a policy that hasn't worked for 50 years is a reward," he said. "We cannot continue doing more of the same and somehow expect a different result."
Mr. Restrepo said Mr. Obama would roll back limits imposed by Mr. Bush on Cuban-Americans sending money back to their families on the island and on travel to Cuba. The restrictions have been unpopular with many Cuban-Americans in southern Florida, who have proved a critical voting bloc in one of the nation's premier swing states.
More ambitiously, Mr. Obama would be ready to "start down the road to normalization" if Raul Castro's government releases unconditionally all of the regime's political prisoners, Mr. Restrepo said. During the Democratic primary debates, Mr. Obama listed Mr. Castro along with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez as hostile foreign leaders with whom he would be prepared to meet during his first year in office if he thought it would advance U.S. interests.
"That's not rewarding the regime. It's a case of not being afraid to use the bully pulpit," Mr. Restrepo insisted.
Mr. Adolfo, however, countered that Raul Castro had introduced only minor "window-dressing" reforms since succeeding his brother in mid-2006 and that U.S. concessions would be a "colossal mistake."
"It would in Sen. McCain's view be a tragedy at the twilight of this regime that we actually would sit down without preconditions and reward the Castro brothers," he said.