ORLANDO — Jeb Bush hasn't campaigned for himself in this part of Florida since 2002, but on Monday, he will return here to reconnect with former supporters and make an overt appeal to the region's fast-growing Latino population.
In a first as a presidential candidate, the Republican plans to sit for a Spanish-language interview with a Telemundo news anchor. He will meet with dozens of mostly Hispanic evangelical pastors at a mega-church, visit a small business owned by a Mexican immigrant and try to introduce himself to the hundreds of thousands of people who have moved to this transient region in the eight years since he left the governor's mansion.
The Florida Republican presidential primary isn't until March 15 — several weeks into the primary process and long after the GOP contest will start taking shape in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. But a decisive victory in Florida could set Bush on a course to the party's nomination. And a decisive victory won't be possible without winning here.
Right now, Bush sits atop the Republican field in Florida. He leads Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) 28 percent to 16 percent, according to a Mason Dixon Polling & Research survey released last week. That's a change from March, when the two Sunshine State residents were virtually tied in a similar poll by the group.
But the political demography of the state and especially this region is increasingly in turmoil because of a steady influx of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island commonwealth and its economic woes in hopes of stability on the mainland.
At least 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, enough to be the swing vote in one of the nation’s most important swing states. The number of Puerto Ricans coming to Central Florida has tripled in just a few years, putting them on pace to soon exceed the number of Cuban Americans in the state. They live primarily along Interstate 4 — known in political terms as "the I-4 corridor" — between Orlando and Tampa and account for more than a quarter of the population of Florida’s Osceola County.
And their votes are up for grabs.
"The Latino vote in Central Florida is not cemented," said Jimmy Jimenez, a local pastor and radio host. "It’s not the New York Latino vote. I don’t care if they’re from New York or Puerto Rico, it means nothing here."
Jimenez is a longtime Bush supporter and he plans to attend the candidate's midday event with other Hispanic pastors — a meeting that he said will be a reunion of sorts.
"When he was governor, he was always in touch with the faith community here," he said. "It’s not something — in his case — like a maneuver. It goes with his character. He’s a person of faith, he’s not trumpeting his faith — he doesn’t’ talk often publicly about these issues. But it’s a natural constituency for him."
The series of events in Orlando, Longwood and Maitland will allow Bush to draw contrasts with Donald Trump, a GOP presidential candidate who is leading several polls. Bush has been critical of Trump's comments about illegal immigrants from Mexico. Bush, whose wife was born in Mexico, said he's offended by suggestions that illegal immigrants from the country are rapists and other types of criminals.
Trump's sustained popularity among Republican voters is likely to be a topic of discussion when Bush sits for an interview with José Díaz-Balart, the main news anchor for the Telemundo network, who also hosts a daily news program on MSNBC. The interview is expected to be conducted entirely in Spanish -- giving Bush an opportunity to counter Trump's rhetoric and rise among people most offended by his comments, and will guarantee him plenty of airtime on Spanish-language television and radio stations across Florida and nationwide.