- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

Sen. John Edwards held a series of meetings with key Cuban Americans last weekend in Miami, seeking to break the Republican hold on the Cuban voting bloc.
The North Carolina Democrat and 2004 presidential hopeful "mostly listened, but also asked questions about how we feel about U.S. policy in Cuba," said one person in attendance, a Republican businessman and former state political appointee.
"It looks like [Mr. Edwards] looked at the numbers and realized that the only way to win Florida is to get a substantial amount of Cuban voters," said the man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Cuban Americans are the largest minority in the state of Florida.
"Democrats know they cannot take the presidency without taking Florida, and they cannot take Florida without making a dent in the Cuban vote," said Tony Fernandez, who is active in Miami's overwhelmingly Republican Cuban community. "And this is one of the first times that they have been so upfront about it."
A spokesman for Mr. Edwards declined to speak about the meetings.
Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another Democrat pondering a presidential bid in 2004, also has established a base there, choosing a Miami office as headquarters of his political action committee.
Republicans dismissed as futile Democratic efforts to usurp their long-standing hold on the Cuban community.
"We face this community every day, and I don't want [Democrats] coming down here and saying that they have heard the voice of the Cuban community," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a five-term Cuban congressman from Miami.
He noted that his brother, Mario, drew 95 percent of the Cuban vote in defeating a Democratic Cuban, Annie Betancourt, in a congressional race on Nov. 5, "in what became a referendum on U.S. Cuban policy," Mr. Diaz-Balart said.
The race was also a look at how Republicans can maintain a political hold on younger Cuban voters.
Mario Diaz-Balart secured a base among those younger voters, who are less likely to hold a hard-line stance against Cuba dictator Fidel Castro.
Those younger voters are the targets of Democrats in 2004, said Guillermo Meneses, Hispanic outreach director for the Democratic National Committee.
He said they are the reason Mr. Edwards is making time for Cuban community leaders.
"This is where we will have a strong chance to make gains among the Cuban-American vote," he said, because younger Cubans "are more interested in judging a candidate on their record of accomplishment in the United States than on Cuba."
In this month's gubernatorial election, incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush got between 78 and 82 percent of the Cuban vote, according to early estimates. His vast support in that bloc also helped him to win vastly Democratic Miami-Dade County by 30,000 votes.
Bill Clinton garnered a surprising 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 1996, a 15-percentage-point improvement over 1992 and a crucial factor in his victory in the state, which no Democrat had won since 1976.
Still, Democrats have run successfully among the Cuban population in the past; Democratic Rep. Claude Pepper served 20 years beginning in 1961 with strong Cuban support in his largely Hispanic district, due mostly to his strong anti-Castro stands.
The state's U.S. senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, have made similar inroads in the coveted bloc.
Efforts to lift the 40-year-old economic restrictions on Cuba have recently gained momentum on Capitol Hill including Republican quarters due to mounting opinion that the sanctions have failed to foster change in the communist nation.


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