The Miami Herald
Thu, May. 15, 2008

Candidates take different roads on Cuba


Democrat Barack Obama is slated to address the prominent Cuban American National Foundation on May 23, setting up a near-collision over foreign policy with Republican John McCain, who is delivering a major speech on Cuba three days earlier.

Their back-to-back appearances in Miami will offer one of the sharpest contrasts of the fledgling general election campaign: Obama favors pursuing democratic reforms by talking to the Cuban government and allowing Cuban Americans to freely travel and send money to the island. McCain defends the Bush administration's hard-line stance aimed at debilitating the communist regime.

''He's looking forward to making the case in person to Florida voters that they will have a clear choice between change in Washington and McCain's commitment to continuing George Bush's policies,'' said Obama spokesman Josh Earnest.

The candidates' divergent views on Cuba reflect their broader campaign strategies, with Obama seeking to portray himself as an agent of change and McCain aspiring to the image of the seasoned foreign-policy steward.

''I don't know how popular Obama will be when he's advocating unconditionally sitting down with the communist government of Cuba before they make necessary changes and hold free and fair elections,'' McCain spokesman Jeff Sadosky said.

Obama will headline the lobbying group's Cuban Independence Day luncheon in Coral Gables, a politically and emotionally charged setting for his first campaign trip to Florida in nine months. McCain is scheduled to speak at the Sheraton Miami Mart -- his first speech on Cuba since he clinched the GOP nomination.

''The presence of both candidates here next week will be a landmark for our community,'' said Jorge Mas Santos, chairman of the foundation. ``It's important not just that they speak, but that they listen to us, our aspirations, our dreams and the voice of the victims who suffer under a repressive tyranny.''

The foundation is officially non-partisan, but the group opposes President Bush's tighter limits on travel and remittances. The foundation does not share Obama's willingness to talk to the Cuban government.

His speech will be one of several delicate matters to finesse as Obama aims to court a must-win state that heavily favored rival Hillary Clinton.

Both candidates boycotted the state before its Jan. 29 primary that broke national party rules.

''She shows no sign of doing anything but winning,'' said Miami lawyer Ira Leesfield, who was among the top fundraisers who met with Clinton in Washington on Wednesday.

But Obama has continued to expand his delegate lead, day by day, and landed one of his biggest endorsements yet Wednesday from former rival John Edwards. The trip to Florida is another sign of the campaign's confidence.

Details are still pending, but Obama is expected to headline a large rally in South Florida and attend a smaller event with U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler in his district straddling Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Wexler, a staunch defender of Israel, has been trying to diffuse concerns about Obama's policy toward Iran and his ex-pastor's criticism of Israel.

The congressman spoke Tuesday to a heavily Jewish crowd at the Kings Point retirement community in Tamarac.

''It's a fortress of people who voted for Hillary and some of them were saying they would never vote for Obama,'' said longtime Broward Democratic leader Diane Glasser, who has not endorsed either candidate. ``But I think Wexler calmed a lot of people down.''

She added: ``Obama hasn't been here, so no one really knows him. He's got to let people get to know him and get their questions answered.''

Obama put a toehold in Florida last weekend when he launched a voter-registration drive in more than a dozen Florida cities.

As the Democratic party faces another three weeks -- at least -- without a presidential nominee, the Republican Party of Florida is gearing up to open its Miami campaign headquarters on Saturday.