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New Generation Casts Votes on Immigration, Economic Issues

Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee stopped for Cuban-style coffee and campaigning last week at the Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana section of Miami.
Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee stopped for Cuban-style coffee and campaigning last week at the Versailles restaurant in the Little Havana section of Miami. (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

MIAMI, Jan. 29 -- It has become a highly stylized ritual: Political candidates drop by the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana, slurp a cafecito, condemn Fidel Castro and loudly affirm, " Viva Cuba libre!" Television cameras capture it all.

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The Republican primary in Florida this year was no different. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee stopped by, and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney went a step further by donning a guayabera for his appearances in the area.

But as iconic as those moments at the Versailles have become, their symbolism may have been lost in a presidential election campaign less about the Cuban past than this nation's present, with a new generation of Cubans providing the decisive edge McCain needed against Romney. Cuban voters sided with McCain over Romney 5 to 1, not because McCain presented himself as the stronger bulwark against communism but because he was the moderate, pro-immigrant candidate they wanted.

"There's been a generational shift in Florida's Latino community," said Cecilia Mu¿oz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Latino group. "Cuban children are not from the refugee experience."

Dario Moreno, a professor at Florida International University and an expert in Cuban American politics, said that Cuban American voters were initially inclined toward McCain and Giuliani because of their strong stands on national security and moderate positions on other issues. When the Giuliani campaign seemed to lag, Cuban Americans switched to McCain, rolling up big margins for him.

"It was strategic voting," he said. "It lead to a bandwagon affect. People began to vote with a probable winner."

Republican candidates did not seem to see it coming. As usual, they strove to adopt the fiercest anti-Castro rhetoric, even as other issues -- the U.S. economy, the Iraq war and health care -- were the higher priorities of many Cuban American voters.

"Cuban Americans are voting on the same issues that other Floridians are voting on," Moreno said. "There is a lot of middle-class angst."

McCain was aided by the early support of South Florida's three Cuban American House members, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario and Lincoln D¿az-Balart. McCain also received the endorsement of Florida's Republican senator, Mel Martinez, who is also Cuban American.

On Tuesday, as contemporary Latin music played outside Precinct 418 here, voters explained that they have heard get-tough-on-Castro promises from Republican candidates before and those promises have not amounted to much.

"They always come and say 'Viva Cuba libre!' " and 'next year,' " said Jorge Chao, 51, a dry-cleaning manager who came to Miami from Cuba in 1980. "But it's been 51 years, and nothing has changed."

"I live here, not in Cuba," said Caridad Calzadilla, 53, a real estate agent. "The most important issue is the economy."

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