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Elian swings Cuban voters back to GOP

After backing Clinton, Cuban-American voters are ready to punish Democrats for the Gonzalez situation.

By DAVID ADAMS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


MIAMI -- After eight years of experimenting with Democrats, Cuban-American voters in South Florida are going back to their Republican roots.

In large part it's because of one little boy: 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who for more than six months was caught in a highly politicized custody battle.

Today, Elian is back in Cuba with his father. The mood in Miami has cooled down. But no one has forgotten the boy, and as Election Day nears Cuban-American exiles are getting ready to exact their revenge.

Al Gore seems set to pay the price for the Clinton administration's effort's to let the boy go back to Cuba with his dad.

"It's time for pay back," said Jose Basulto, one of the leaders of the exile street movement to keep Elian from returning to Fidel Castro's Cuba. "Not just for those of us activists, but also for many who were watching at home. To them it was personal."

Local pollsters confirm it's not idle talk.

"There's no mistake we are seeing a return to the voting patterns of the '80s," said Sergio Bendixen, a veteran South Florida pollster with the Miami firm Hispanic Trends.

In those days Democratic Party presidential candidates were lucky to get 15 percent of Florida's 400,000 Cuban exile votes. That's all Jimmy Carter managed against Ronald Reagan in 1980. In 1988 Michael Dukakis managed less than 13 percent, according to exit polls.

But Bill Clinton changed that, winning 27 percent of Cuban voters in 1996. Four years later George W. Bush leads Al Gore by a whopping 64 percentage points (77-13), according to the latest poll by Hispanic Trends.

Bendixen likens it to the "voto de castigo," a popular phenomenon among Latin American voters, meaning "vote of punishment" in Spanish.

"Candidates are punished in a very emotional way for whatever they have done to offend voters," he said. No other issues matter.

In this case, Bendixen says polls show Cuban voters preparing to "hit back" at the Democratic Party over the Clinton administration's handling of the Elian affair.

As a sign of local feelings, South Florida's most prominent Democrat, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, has been virtually invisible during the election campaign. He chose to miss a recent campaign event in Miami to head a 12-day trade mission to Spain last month.

No matter that Gore went against the administration to support efforts to keep Elian in the United States. Indeed, when it comes down to actual Cuba policy, few voters see anything to chose from between the candidates.

It seems to make little difference that exiles regard Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman as one of their best allies in Congress.

"It's so emotional that they are ignoring Gore's position and Lieberman's loyalty to the cause," said Bendixen. "In situations like this, reason goes out the window."

Political analysts note that it's not all about Elian, however. Clinton's success among Cuban voters in 1996 was aided by special circumstances. That year the Republicans made immigration a major issue, alienating many Hispanics, including Cubans. Bob Dole also excited little enthusiasm among Cuban voters.

Since then the Republicans have moved away from their hard stance on immigration. Bush also enjoys name recognition among Cuban-Americans. His father was popular among exiles, and brother Jeb is a familiar face in Cuban Miami.

Lieberman became a friend of Cuban exiles in 1988 when he ran for the Senate against incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, a former Connecticut governor. Weicker had attracted Cuban exile ire by twice meeting with Castro in Cuba and advocating that the United States improve its relations with him.

Last week, during a campaign stop in Miami, Lieberman recalled the support he received from the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the powerful Cuban American National Foundation, the main exile organization.

"We bonded on a matter of principle. We became more than political allies. We became dear friends," he told a select group of Cuban and Jewish leaders who gathered at Freedom Tower, a downtown Miami landmark where Cuban exiles were processed in the 1960s by immigration officials. "He reminded me of what America should be all about -- opportunity and freedom."

Mas Canosa also made sure that Lieberman would never be short of cash when it came to election time, helping the Connecticut senator raise significant contributions from Cuban exiles.

Before addressing the meeting, Lieberman visited the grave of Mas Canosa to pay his respects with members of the dead man's family.

"For me this is not just another campaign stop. This is something that strikes right to my core and my heart," he said.

Lieberman tried to persuade his Cuban friends that Gore is committed to a hard-line policy against Castro.

But it may be too late for that. Miami's influential Cuban radio stations are solidly behind Bush, and still seem to be able to whip voters into a frenzy over Elian.

"It's going to be difficult," admitted Jose Smith, a registered Democrat who is both Cuban-American and Jewish, and is on the Miami Beach City Commission. "I think there's a feeling that Clinton did not do right by the Cuban community."

Smith was one of those who turned out at Freedom Tower to show his support for Lieberman.

"Part of the reason we are here is to send out a message that there are Cuban-American Democrats who feel very strongly about what Mr. Lieberman has done," he said.

Smith and others argue that Lieberman's track record in Congress should be taken into account by Cuban-American voters. But they say the party has done a poor job of selling his image in the Cuban community.

"Joe Lieberman is probably the best kept secret in the Cuban-American cause," said Luis Garcia, a fellow Cuban-American Democrat and Miami Beach commissioner.

Despite that, others say they just can't bring themselves to vote Democrat.

"I respect the senator very much," said Manny Vazquez, a Cuban-American lawyer and former Democrat who switched parties last year. "But I have parted philosophically with the national party."

It wasn't only Elian. But Monica Lewinsky as well.

"I left because the people in the White House today are amoral. I'm sick of that," he said.

While the news in Cuban circles may not be good for Democrats, local leaders don't appear too concerned. Cuban voters make up only 8 percent of the electorate statewide. Compare that with an estimated 11 percent for Jewish voters, concentrated mostly on the east coast.

The Lieberman candidacy has galvanized Jewish communities, said Smith. Increased Democratic support from Jews would likely more than offset any Cuban losses.

Democratic candidates could expect to win 60 percent to 70 percent of the Jewish vote, say pollsters. "With Lieberman that could hit 80," said Bendixen.

A growing non-Cuban Hispanic population in South Florida also favors the Democrats. Among voters from Central and South America, Gore holds a 30- to 40-point lead.

Unless the vote count is exceptionally close, in the end voter swings among Cubans and Jews may not make all that much difference. A few percentage points here or there only amount to 10,000 to 20,000 voters.

"This election is more about senior citizens and the success of Gore's prescription drug policy," said Bendixen. "Down here we tend to overestimate the importance of the Cuban vote."

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