The Cuban refugee crisis in this keystone of Jimmy Carter's southern arch has undermined the president's preferred campaign strategy of submerging his own record in favor of attacking Ronald Reagan as a racist warmonger.
The attack strategy is counted on by Carter to activate the black vote against Reagan and to frighten blue-collar Democrats, worried about war, back to their Democratic homeland despite high taxes and recession.
The strategy was bankrupt from the start here in Florida, and particularly in Miami's Dade County. Charges of racism and warmongering against Reagan never had a chance when measured against the president's accountability for the Cuban refugee crisis, but Carter moved with unaccustomed tardiness to make a pro-Carter record on this issue.
Disregarding proposals from leading Democrats here that he send up to 5,000 unwanted Cuban refugees to abandoned military bases in western states that he is certain to lose anyway on Nov. 4, he finally decided instead to send them to Puerto Rico, which has no electoral votes. That decision, coupled with a special $100 million appropriation for refugee expenses, has helped to cure his worst reelection problem in populous Dade County. Dade gave him a plurality of 90,000 votes in his narrow victory over Gerald Ford -- well over half his margin of victory.
Explosive anti-Carter emotions built up for weeks over the refugee issue before the president could be persuaded that carrying Florida would require more than his negative anti-Reagan strategy. From shrewd, cautious Gov. Bob Graham on down, Democratic strategists sent one SOS after another to the White House begging for help. "The White House did not understand what was happening," Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre, a key Carter leader, told us. In other words, despite warnings from Pat Caddell's polls, Carter's men apparently believed that making Reagan the issue would override the refugee mess.
The result of delay is lingering anti-Carter hostility among middle-income whites, and anger among earlier Cuban refugees (now highly motivated voters) who were affronted by the low quality of the latest batch of Cuban refugees.
Cuban-Americans will turn out in unprecedented numbers on Nov. 4 to vote for Reagan. In local elections, hard-working Cuban-Americans are often twice as likely to vote as American-born citizens. That points to real trouble for Carter. Hispanic political leaders hope to double the 40,000 Cuban-American voters in 1976. If, as these leaders told us, they give Reagan 75 percent of their votes, Carter's comfortable 1976 plurality in Dade County could be cut way down.
The Cuban-American vote is only the base of the pyramid that threatens to deprive Carter of 17 electoral votes in the state that, until recently, White House politicians called "Carter country." Here in Dade County, and northward into the gleaming condominiums of Broward County, the Jewish vote is sullen and unresponsive to Carter blandishment.
One telling signal; last election, the Tenants Association of Florida, largely Jewish, endorsed Carter over Ford. Not so in 1980, a decision based squarely on Billy Carter's intimacy with the radical Libyan regime.
To exploit Jewish concern about Carter, Reagan forces will import Henry Kissinger for a pep talk to condominium dwellers in mid-October. Kissinger's message: the worst threat to Israel's security is a weakened United States.
The Jewish vote may return to its Democratic home, but the top of the anti-Carter pyramid -- the evangelical "Old South" Protestant vote in the panhandle along the president's own Georgia border -- exhibits decisive movement to Reagan.
The latest Florida Newspaper Poll, based on sampling Sept. 29 and 30, showed Reagan moving ahead of Carter for the first time in the panhandle. Carter's basic campaign theme against Reagan as a racist and warmonger cuts little ice in the hard-core conservative north. Many nominal Democrats there backed George Wallace and Richard Nixon.
Carter had been advised by Gov. Graham to make no appearance in Florida until Oct. 21, when the Cuban refugee crisis presumably will have phased out. uBut deterioration portrayed in the latest Florida Newspaper Poll, coupled with other portents, have radically changed that timetable. The president now plans a two-day visit starting tommorrow.
Beyond doubt, something more than a campaign based on Reagan negatives is needed, and Carter hopes to supply it without delay.