In Senate battle it pays to speak Spanish, sí?
Democrat Alex Penelas looks at Mel Martinez's ascendancy in the Republican Party and sees opportunity where the early polls show a bust in Penelas' bid for the U.S. Senate.
"I have great respect for Mel," Penelas told me last week during a swing through Central Florida -- ground zero in Florida's election madness as the number of independent Hispanic voters not affiliated with either the Republicans or the Democrats grows.
"Mel's success on the Republican side is making more and more the case for me on the Democratic side," Penelas said.
Penelas is right on strategy. The Miami-Dade County mayor is a moderate who has a tested record of winning Republican Cuban-American voters in nonpartisan Miami-Dade County elections -- voters who will be pivotal come the November presidential election. He also offers Central Florida's predominantly Puerto Rican electorate an attractive choice, a strategy that would steal ethnic votes from Martinez, the former Orange County chairman, on his own turf.
But first, Penelas and Martinez would have to win their respective primaries. Spring has barely started, but in politics it's already the dog days of summer for Penelas.
Penelas trails among Democratic contenders for retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Graham's seat, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll for the Sentinel and WESH-Channel 2. Former Education Commissioner Betty Castor remains the front-runner with 33 percent support from Democratic primary voters, followed by 16 percent for U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch from South Florida and 9 percent for Penelas.
Penelas, who has been in a nasty war of words with Deutsch, has the highest unfavorable rating -- 15 percent -- of the pack. The ghost of Elian Gonzalez may be jinxing Penelas, too, among Democrats who opposed his threatening to pull a George Wallace to stop the feds from taking the little shipwreck survivor back to Cuba. Penelas has since apologized for letting his emotions trump the law.
Late-starter Martinez, for his part, has jumped from the low single digits to 18 percent support among GOP primary voters in the Mason-Dixon poll, gaining on former U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum, who leads with 27 percent. Still, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who left President Bush's Cabinet after Karl Rove nudged him to run for the Senate and win one for the Neocon Gipper (a k a George W. Bush), has to convince primary voters that he's not a liberal trial lawyer in GOP pinstripe.
McCollum already lost the Senate in 2000 -- turning off many Hispanic voters in South Florida with his anti-immigrant votes in Congress. Why risk a GOP loss in 2004? The White House can add the 500,000 Cuban-American votes.
"We as Democrats have to realize that we're not ahead on this thing," Penelas said of the Hispanic-vote equation in the presidential race. Jeb Bush swept the Hispanic vote in Central and South Florida in 2002, even though Hispanics gave Al Gore and not Jeb's brother the edge in Orange and Osceola counties in 2000.
W., Jeb, Mel: All can campaign in Spanish -- and do. "It will be making a huge difference," Penelas said. "And who do we have to counter that?"
Democrats know the answer, but the party's liberal base can't seem to figure out the strategy.