HIALEAH, Fla. — If Mitt Romney wins Tuesday's primary, a sliver of the GOP electorate in Florida may be one of the big reasons.
Cuban-Americans are deeply committed voters who can have an impact in competitive races, and Romney has strong support among the influential Cuban-American establishment. Older exiles also tend to vote heavily through absentee ballots, where the former Massachusetts governor all but certainly has an edge. And the candidate's emphasis on fixing the economy is resonating with backers like Jesus Ovidez, who cares more about jobs than he does U.S. policy toward Cuba.
"When we are in a better position here, then we can worry about over there. But first you have to put your own house in order," said Ovidez, who spent months in a forced labor camp before fleeing the island in the late 1960s.
Ovidez has been a co-owner of Chico's Restaurant in the heavily Cuban-American community of Hialeah north of Miami for more than 30 years. He gestured around to the mostly empty chairs during one recent lunch hour and talked about how Romney's emphasis on the economy was one of the main reasons he already has cast his vote for the former businessman.
"There's no money. People don't go out to eat any more," said Ovidez. Maybe, he said, Romney can help change that. Plus, Ovidez argued, Romney is the only Republican who can beat President Barack Obama, saying: "He's an individual who is a millionaire, and with money you win elections."
During the past week, a series of polls have shown Romney pulling ahead of chief challenger Newt Gingrich in the run up to Tuesday's primary.
Overall, roughly 11.1 percent of registered Republicans in Florida are Hispanic. And of all Hispanic voters in the state, 32.1 percent are Cuban, 28.4 percent are Puerto Rican and 25 percent come mostly from Central and South America., according to the Pew Hispanic Center, which cites the Florida Division of Elections.
Ana Carbonell, a longtime political operative now working for Romney, estimates that 14 percent of the GOP primary vote comes from Miami-Dade County and, of that, 75 percent is Cuban-American.
Generally, Cuban-American voters have the highest turnout rates. In 2008, they helped John McCain win the primary over Romney, who lost heavily in Miami-Dade County, where this voting group is most concentrated.
Cuban-American voters are particularly reliable in the primary in part because so many of the older exiles vote early through absentee ballots, and Romney's campaign — with the significant help from local Cuban-American political leaders — has led all other campaigns in encouraging Floridians to vote before Tuesday. He or his allies have been on the TV airwaves since December targeting early voters. And in recent days, they have flooded Spanish-radio and TV with ads attacking Gingrich.
Romney's strength among the old-guard Cuban-Americans was evident last week when he received a standing ovation before he even spoke to more than 400 exile political and civic leaders. They packed the Freedom Tower in downtown Miami, where thousands fleeing Fidel Castro's revolution first received health care and were processed by immigration officers in the 1960s. Romney was flanked by prominent Cuban-American politicians, including former Sen. Mel Martinez and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress.
While Romney highlighted his business background and spoke on the economy, he also tapped into the pride many Cuban-Americans still feel toward the island nation and their angst over its leaders.
"If I'm fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet," Romney told the crowd to wild applause. Castro, 85, has been ill since 2006, when he handed over power to his brother, Raul. "We have to be prepared, in the next president's first or second term, it is time to strike for freedom in Cuba."
Arguably the state's most popular Cuban-American politician, Sen. Marco Rubio, has withheld an endorsement during the primary but came to Romney's defense in the past week, criticizing Gingrich over an ad that labeled Romney anti-immigrant.
Gingrich, for his part, has called for a U.S.-supported "Cuban spring" uprising against the long-standing communist regime.
If elected, he told a crowd of Hispanic business and civic leaders Friday, he would bring to bear "the moral force of an American president who is serious about intending to free the people of Cuba, and willingness to intimidate those who are the oppressors and say to them, 'You will be held accountable.'"
Gingrich has talked of covert action to overthrow the government of Raul Castro, though he insisted such efforts would not include violence.
And he signed a pledge to roll back the ability of Cubans to visit and send money to relatives on the island to the strict limits Bush imposed in 2004. Such promises play well in the older exile community, many of whose homes were confiscated during the Cuban revolution and are far less likely than newer Cuban immigrants to have close family there.
Gingrich also aired a Spanish-language radio ad in South Florida, reminding voters of Romney's 2007 presidential campaign gaffe, in which he proudly declared in Little Havana, "Patria or muerte, venceremos!" (Fatherland or death, we shall overcome) — not realizing the line was a slogan of Fidel Castro.
All that has helped sway retired insurance agent and Cuban exile Bernardo Diaz.
Last week, he declared his vote for Romney.
"I don't want Obama, and he's the only one who can win," Diaz said, as he puffed on a cigarette outside the famed Versailles Restaurant in Miami's Little Havana.
Days later, he had changed his mind, saying: "I'm leaning toward Gingrich. Gingrich seems more energetic, stronger on Cuba."