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He goes into tonight's presidential debate on Univision with a double-digit lead in state polls.
By DAVID DeCAMP, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007
MIAMI - In a cigar shop in Hialeah, the clerk pinches his finger to show how little English he speaks. But his eyes light up when he hears Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani gets the same kind of reception at a NASCAR race in Homestead and inside the anti-Fidel Castro heart of Cuban-American Miami, the Versailles restaurant.
Nowhere is Giuliani's support in Florida stronger than in South Florida, buoyed by high ratings among Hispanic Republicans.
"For Christmas, get me Giuliani on a sled," said supporter Ariel Gonzalez, 45, a businessman in Opa-locka who singled out the "strong leadership" of the former mayor.
Rival presidential candidate Mitt Romney started wooing Hispanic voters months earlier, but Giuliani has capitalized on his celebrity and the perception of him as a forceful leader. No other Republican candidate enjoys such strong support, helping Giuliani build double-digit leads in statewide polls.
Hispanics "were a very important part of my coalition in getting elected mayor of New York City, and we want them to be a very important part of my coalition in winning the Republican primaries," Giuliani, who does not speak Spanish, said last month as he launched a nationwide outreach effort dubbed Viva Rudy.
Generally, Hispanic Republicans account for 14 percent of the Florida primary turnout, and 70 percent of those voters come from Miami-Dade County, said political science professor Dario Moreno of Florida International University, an expert on Hispanic voting.
Giuliani's statewide Hispanic outreach effort is led by state Rep. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and includes U.S. Rep. Luis Fortuno, R-Puerto Rico, in its national leadership.
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Former state Republican Party chairman Al Cardenas, one of Romney's national leaders on Hispanic issues, said Romney has built outreach effortsin South Floridathat can crack Giuliani's advantage once people know Romney better.
Romney, also not fluent in Spanish, was the first GOP candidate with a Hispanic outreach effort. His third Spanish radio ad started airing Friday, highlighting his business ties, family life and urging voters to "get to know him better."
"These next 60 days are critical," said Cardenas, who chalks up Giuliani's lead to name recognition Romney lacks. "I think most of our community is not focused on the election yet. ... I think the wakeup call will come with the Univision debate."
That's at 7 p.m. today, whenthe Republicans debate on the nation's largest Spanish-language channel.
Renato Tarrau, 67, probably will be watching closely. The Miami mechanic used to live in New Jersey. He said Giuliani did well as mayor, and that's why he supports him.
"I like Giuliani - New York is very good," he said.
But with almost two months before Florida's primary, he's still open to other Republicans: "Maybe I'll change, I don't know."
Romney has tried to be a socially conservative alternative to Giuliani, but the political landscape may not allow a shift dramatic enough to give him victory in South Florida. Hispanic residents there tend to vote in large blocs, Moreno said.
Leading the overall race with 36 percent of the vote, Giuliani had 70 percent of Hispanic support among Florida Republicans in November, according to a poll for the St. Petersburg Times and other news outlets. Romney had 6 percent, trailing John McCain's 12. McCain has invested little in Florida.
"I would say it's pretty enduring," Times pollster Tom Eldon said of Giuliani's ratings. "To the extent Romney is seriously playing in South Florida, he's trying to cut his losses. ... He's trying to collect those social conservatives that say, 'No, I can't do it.'"
A Pew Hispanic Center from Oct. 3 to Nov. 9 also showed Giuliani with big support among Hispanic Republicans nationally. In results released Thursday, Giuliani had 35 percent, with Fred Thompson next at 13 percent. Romney had 4 percent.
Giuliani's campaign counts several reasons he could win in South Florida. For starters, the region is a bastion of northeastern transplants.
"Whenever you say Brooklyn, you get applause," Giuliani quipped at a Boca Raton event last month, according to the Associated Press.
Second, Miami-Dade voters - Hispanics especially - have supported mayors who project authority. Last year, county voters approved a "strong mayor" form of government. According to polling by the Metropolitan Center run by Moreno, three-quarters of Hispanic voters backed the measure.
Giuliani also is banking on voters putting less weight on social issues. Past support of abortion rights, gay marriage and gun ownership controls put him at odds with part of the Republican base.
For Cubans, who form a Republican bloc in the Miami area, foreign policy and domestic issues are bigger priorities, said Moreno, who favors Giuliani but is open to voting for Romney.
Rolando Santos, 45, is drawn to Giuliani's support for tax cuts, and small businesses like the 10-employee Castone Creations he runs.Plus, Santos used to live in Brooklyn.
Giuliani also has avoided trippingduring the sometimes harsh debate on immigration. While Romney has pressed enforcement more stridently, Giuliani's message is careful:
"My policy on immigration can be very simply stated: We should end illegal immigration and extend legal immigration," he said recently in Tampa.
Like Romney and other Republican candidates, Giuliani has been critical of Castro and supports maintaining Cuba sanctions and travel restrictions. Most Cuban-American voters will have no trouble with the field's positions on Cuba, said Cardenas, who called the issue a litmus test for Cuban voters.
Heading to Florida's Jan. 29 primary, the formula amounts to a potential South Florida boost for Giuliani. His support is less robust in other areas, despite his overall lead.
But Cardenas said a lot of factors that could favor Romney might influence the results.
There's potential momentum from earlier states, such as Jan. 3 in Iowa, where Romney is the front-runner.
Television ad wars in Florida will start, too. And the popular Spanish radio will carry campaign messages, helping determine whether Giuliani's stardom can turn into votes.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800 333-7505, ext. 6232.
[Last modified December 8, 2007, 21:42:23]