Originally published by Politic365 here.
Until now, you’ve seen polls, you’ve heard pundits, and you’ve read articles telling you who Hispanics in Florida are going to choose to run against Barack Obama. Results point to Mitt Romney as having the clear lead ahead of runner up Newt Gingrich.
But what do Hispanics in Florida really think?
The word on the street here in Miami has been a little different. Although Mitt has recently fared well, Newt has invested years of time into building relationships in South Florida, including founding The Americano to educate Hispanics on conservative issues, and has previously winning over the majority-Cuban population.
Nonetheless, if you really want to get a taste of the true feelings of Hispanic Republicans in Florida, what better way than to throw a party? That’s just what the Hispanic Leadership Network – a center-right Hispanic organization based here in Miami – did this week when it co-hosted the CNN debate last night and invited 500+ Hispanics and other leaders including Jeb Bush, Norm Coleman, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, to watch and let emotions loose (of course, throwing in a little pre-party liquor made it that much more interesting).
If you watched the debate live in Jacksonville, let’s just say Miami is no Jacksonville.
When the candidates were introduced, there was no doubt that Newt had the audience. After all, Newt has spent so much time working in Florida, building coalitions and organizations, and giving speeches within Hispanic communities that his work should have paid off. But, throughout the night, the crowd began to sway towards a new love.
The first question was the obligatory one when anyone knows Hispanics might be listening: What’s up with immigration?
The mostly Cuban and Puerto Rican gathering seemed annoyed at the question, with even a couple of snarky boos. Immigration is clearly not the top issue in Miami.
However, when Newt insisted that English be made the official language of the U.S., Middle America might be shocked to hear that Hispanics responded with resounding praise.
Mitt began to win the audience back when he responded to Newt’s claim that Mitt is the most anti-immigrant candidate. According to Newt, we are not going to be able to deport “Latino grandmothers.” Audience members were more impressed with Mitt’s response that there probably are not “11 million grandmothers.”
The response to Ron Paul provided the greatest evidence that this crowd has no kinship with the Jacksonville-version of Florida. He was the only candidate to be booed, and he was booed more than once, while at the same time applause outweighed criticism in Jacksonville.
“We’d be better off trading with Cuba.” Boos. “We impose ourselves [on other countries].” Huge boos. “[We need a] better relationship with Cuba . . .]” Well, you can guess what several hundred immigrants, whose families escaped what they consider one of the least free counties in the western world thought of that one. If they were handing out tomatoes instead of CNN water bottles, the cleaning staff would have been here all night.
Both Rick Santorum and Paul gave several appealing comments throughout the debate. With comments like “we shouldn’t go to the moon, we should send some politicians up there” and by evaluating his fellow candidates’ responses with “I think they’re all wrong,” Paul turned a crowd that seemed annoyed by typical political rhetoric from jeers to laughter.
Santorum won over some hearts and minds with his comments on potential Hispanic cabinet nominees, his belief in Puerto Rico’s right to self-determination, and his impassioned closing that “the Constitution is the how, the Declaration of Independence is the why and the Declaration states that our rights are derived from God not from government.” The mostly religious and conservative crowd was clearly moved.
While claiming that the press has ignored Cuba and Latin America and calling for open trade, the crowd began to warm up to Mitt. When he said freedom will only come to Cuba “when Castro dies,” the crowd was instantly smitten, giving a huge applause.
As Newt threw out his latest jab, claiming that Mitt made money off his investments in Fannie and Freddie, Mitt proved the power of his own research. “Well it turns out Mr. Speaker that you also have investments in Fannie and Freddie.” Concluding that “my success is an asset, not a detriment” was more than enough to draw a substantial ovation from this decidedly entrepreneurial Florida crowd.
We won’t know who will actually win the Florida Hispanic vote until Tuesday, but if audience reactions during the debate from this Miami-based, Hispanic Republican crowd are any indication, Mitt may have just sealed the deal in Florida.
JUSTIN VELEZ-HAGAN is Senior Contributing Writer and Commentator for Politic365.com. He is also the National Executive Director of The National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and an international developer of senior living facilities. He can be reached at Justin@Politic365.com.