Los Angeles Times
June 28, 2004

New Latino Voters Put More Swing Into State

By John-Thor Dahlburg
Times Staff Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. In this year's fiercely fought presidential campaign, Republicans and Democrats are wooing Florida's growing ranks of non-Cuban Latinos as voters who could decide the election in this crucial swing state.

"This is a huge market, one of several we are going to be going after," said Allie Merzer, spokeswoman for the state's Democratic Party in Tallahassee. "This summer, you'll be seeing the Democratic Party out there knocking on doors, holding rallies and registration drives, and mobilizing voters."

Republicans, who traditionally enjoyed strong support from Florida's Cuban population, also are focused on other Latinos. "There are over 250,000 Puerto Ricans in central Florida alone," said Republican state Rep. John Quinones, a Puerto Rican.

"This is not a vote that is necessarily Democratic or Republican," said Quinones, 39, a lawyer from Kissimmee. "That's a vote you win with the issues, and with what you have on the table."

To court such Latinos, Quinones said 30 Republican volunteers were canvassing Orlando precincts last week.

Michael D. Martinez, associate professor of political science at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said the degree of success by both parties in mobilizing voters, whatever their origins, should determine whether President Bush is again declared the winner in the state or loses to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

"It will all hinge on getting the votes out," Martinez said. In general, he said, Cuban Americans vote roughly 80% to 85% Republican, while Florida's other Latinos, including Mexicans and South and Central Americans, vote about 60% to 65% in favor of Democrats.

"In a sense," Martinez said, "they are more up for grabs than the Cubans."

In Quinones' state House district, Puerto Ricans, many of whom work as Disney World service employees, are the dominant Latino group, so Republicans are tailoring campaign messages accordingly, the lawmaker said.

"Obviously, the issue of Cuba and its relation to the United States is not something that is seen as of great importance," Quinones said. "Jobs, healthcare, families are key to the Hispanics in this area."

Bush and Kerry have made appearances at a community center in Quinones' district, which stretches from south Orlando to Kissimmee. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who speaks Spanish and whose wife is Mexican-born, kicked off his brother's outreach campaign to Latinos from a Latin-themed restaurant in Orlando.

Last month, a caucus of Puerto Rican Democrats in Florida opened an office in Orlando to push for a larger share of power and recognition, and to elect Kerry and other Democrats.

Activist Evelyn Rivera, 57, said at an inaugural reception that it was the special responsibility of Puerto Ricans to fight for a better life for all Latinos. "We can vote; some of them can't," she said.