McCain should court all Latinos, not just Cubans
By MYRIAM MARQUEZ
If Little Havana is the heart and soul of the Cuban exile experience, then Florida International University captures the journey -- from exile to U.S. citizen to college-educated voter.
And there, in the thick of Cuban-American, middle-class enclaves in West Miami-Dade, John McCain will make his pitch Friday to get out the reliably Republican Cuban vote. Expect him to talk tough on U.S. policy toward Cuba and, if he wants to energize the exile base, raise nefarious concerns about Democrat Barack Obama's campaign for ``change.''
For many older exiles who arrived here in the 1960s and '70s, promising change carries dark overtones of Fidel Castro's double-talk to dictatorship.
But the political landscape isn't what it was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan carried the Cuban vote. Nor 2000 or 2004, when George W. Bush locked in eight of every 10 Cuban-American votes, seized most of the Puerto Rican vote in Central Florida and was embraced by Hispanic evangelicals.
Today, Cuban Americans are barely half of all Hispanics in Miami-Dade. Thousands of new U.S. citizens registered to vote have roots in Central or South America. For many Latino voters, the economy and immigration are more immediate problems.
The collapse of immigration reform -- and the xenophobic tone set by Rep. Tom Tancredo and other Republicans as McCain and Obama pushed a path toward legalization -- turned off many Hispanics. McCain has tried to recapture the vote with Spanish-language ads that distort Obama's record on immigration, but the polls haven't surged toward the GOP.
Obama also has been courting Latino Protestants with his support for faith-based programs. Recent polling shows it's working in the Democrat's favor, reversing Bush's success in capturing almost two of every three Hispanic evangelical votes in 2004.
A new national poll released Thursday suggests Latino Protestant support for the GOP has been cut in half since 2004. The poll, available at www.faithinpubliclife.org, puts immigration almost on par with abortion as ''very or extremely important'' to more than 70 percent of Latino Protestants.
''The proverbial elephant in the room is immigration reform,'' said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, one of the survey's sponsors.
He noted that 77 percent said that their religious beliefs influenced their view of immigration.
''Generationally speaking, there is movement to Obama,'' said Claremont McKenna College religious studies professor Gastón Espinosa, editor of a new book, Religion, Race and the American Presidency.
Perhaps, but Obama certainly isn't talking much about immigration -- not when he's fighting with McCain for white evangelicals who have very different views of illegal immigration than their Latino brothers and sisters in Christ.
In Florida, the top two Hispanic voter groups don't have immigration worries. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and the Cuban Adjustment Act grants Cubans privileges as political refugees.
Colombian Americans care about trade and are anxious about terrorism -- which would seem to give McCain the edge. Venezuelans rightly worry about the Castro-Hugo Chávez alliance. Other new citizens remain up for grabs, unable to afford healthcare, stuck in dead-end jobs and suffering through the lousy housing market.
All of them now make up FIU's diverse student body. McCain would be
wise to take notice.