John Edwards made Miami his first campaign stop as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Rallying downtown, he met privately with a small group of Cuban Americans.
BY LESLEY CLARK
Vice presidential nominee John Edwards stepped up Democratic efforts to woo typically Republican Cuban American voters on Monday, huddling privately with community leaders in Miami as he vowed to put the squeeze on Fidel Castro.
The 20-minute reception with Edwards outside the auditorium at the James L. Knight Center came after a morning rally in which Edwards listed Israel and Cuba -- two countries with key South Florida constituencies -- as areas of critical concern for the Democrats.
Edwards suggested Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was better suited than President Bush to forge international alliances and said Kerry would ``promote freedom, not just in the world but also in this hemisphere.''
''I can tell you, John Kerry will keep the pressure on Castro and support those in the fight for freedom,'' Edwards said to cheers at the rally. ``We know what needs to be done.''
The struggle over the traditionally Republican voting bloc underscores the tight nature of the race in Florida, where polls suggest that even a slight shift in support among Cuban Americans could potentially swing the state.
In TV interviews, Edwards criticized the Bush administration for not internationalizing the pressure on Castro.
''It is also important for us to have the alliances and relationships in Latin America that allows us to bring the force of the world on Castro, not just American pressure, but pressure from the entire community,'' the North Carolina senator said, according to a pool account of the interviews. ``That is something that has been missing from this current administration.''
Democrats are increasingly optimistic that they can peel some Cuban American votes from President Bush. Polls suggest a widening division between exiles who arrived before 1980 -- who staunchly support Republicans -- and newer arrivals who are increasingly angry about Bush's recent crackdown on travel to Cuba.
Kerry has assailed Bush's new Cuba policy as tough on families, saying he supports ''principled travel'' to the island. The campaign has hired a Miami field organizer and plans various methods of courting Cuban Americans.
Edwards, who made Miami his first solo post-convention stop, said in the TV interviews that he and his wife, Elizabeth, have a personal connection with the island.
''We have a dear friend who left Cuba and still has family there and this is going to make it much harder for her to visit her family and send help to them,'' he said in an interview with WPLG-ABC 10.
Edwards' private meeting with about 20 mostly Democratic Cuban Americans included Eagle Brands chairman Carlos de la Cruz, a co-founder of the moderate Cuba Study Group; Florida Crystals chairman Alfonso Fanjul and developer Pablo Cejas.
Bush remains popular among the largest and most politically active group of Cuban-American voters, and his campaign has suggested they will reward his hard-line approach in November. ''John Kerry has tough talk and a soft record,'' said Bush campaign spokesman Reed Dickens.