- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2008

MIAMI | For decades, Republicans counted on Cuban-Americans to swing Florida’s Hispanic vote to their side of the aisle during presidential elections.

But times are changing in this battleground state, where Hispanics increasingly are registering as unaffiliated or as third-party members, a trend that coincides with Republican candidates steadily losing ground in legislative elections.

Since the controversial 2000 presidential election, which ultimately was decided when the Supreme Court ended a recount of Florida ballots, the ranks of registered Hispanic independents have increased about 10 percentage points, to 27 percent, and the percentage of Florida´s 1.2 million Hispanics backing Republican candidates has dropped 13 points, to about 51 percent, said officials at Democracia U.S.A., a national nonpartisan Hispanic group headquartered in Miami.

“What this study shows us is that Hispanics are taking a much closer look at what party they’re joining - if they join one at all,” said Jorge Mursuli, president of Democracia USA.

Analysts speculate that the repeated promises by successive U.S. presidents to effect change in Cuba, with no tangible results, has jaded some Cuban voters into abandoning their traditional Republican alliances.

“Lots of them tell me that both the Democratic and Republican parties continue to make a lot of promises [about Cuba] and never deliver,” said Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.

Both presidential candidates say that will change.

The presumptive nominees, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, have promised to tackle issues traditionally important to Hispanic voters, such as immigration, education, health care and Cuba.

Last month, both candidates made the rounds in South Florida, focusing heavily on Hispanic interests. Each promised to outdo the other when it comes to addressing the needs of America’s Latino community.

Mr. McCain’s campaign points to the Arizona Republican’s popularity among Hispanic voters in his home state and says there’s no need to be worried by the trend of Cubans and other Hispanics registering as unaffiliated voters.

“We don’t see that as a downside whatsoever,” said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.

Mr. Obama’s camp says his own family’s immigration experience will help him win Florida’s Hispanic vote.

“The senator’s father was an immigrant - that’s something he has in common with Florida’s Hispanics,” said Obama campaign spokesman Josh Earnest, who also surmised that “the overwhelming sentiment among independents and those not affiliated was their dissatisfaction with the current administration.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Obama has some ground to make up.

Exit polls in the Democratic primaries showed Hispanic voters heavily favored his former rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, including by a margin of 59 percent to 30 percent in Florida’s own primary. The exit polls showed Hispanics made up 12 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in Florida.

By contrast, Mr. McCain won 54 percent of the Hispanic vote on the Republican side.

Both men have been increasing their Hispanic outreach. Mr. Obama recorded an entire campaign ad in Spanish before the Puerto Rico primary, and Mr. McCain has released several Spanish-language ads.

Mr. Obama also has adopted “Si se puede” - a labor union motto for farm workers - in campaign appearances in heavily Hispanic areas and has benefited from support from top Latino stars such as George Lopez.

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