HIALEAH (CBSMiami) – Florida's upcoming primary has the state in the national electoral spotlight once again and the spotlight is fixed tightly on South Florida's Hispanic population, and while it's just a sliver of the GOP electorate, it's a powerful sliver.
Sunday afternoon, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addressed an enthusiastic crowd of Cuban-Americans outside Cara Marin, a traditional Hialeah political spot.
During his speech, Romney spoke about his love for his family, the military, freedom and the United States, repeating important themes for older, Cuban-American voters that form the base of Miami-Dade's Hispanic Republican electorate.
"Gifts to people who are fundamentally evil are always accepted and never returned," Romney said, criticizing President Barack Obama's policy toward Cuba, which allowed for more remittances and travel to the island.
The president is full of "excuses" for the stalled economy; Romney said and accused his chief GOP primary rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of relying on "excuses" to justify his apparently slowing momentum in Florida.
During the past week, a series of polls have shown Romney pulling ahead of Gingrich in the run up to Tuesday's primary.
"The reason you find it hard to connect to the speaker is you know the past 15 years he's been working in Washington," Romney said. "You want someone who is not part of Washington."
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.
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.
After the speech, Romney stepped into the packed Casa Marin restaurant, where another hundred people or so waited.
In addition to posing for pictures, and signing some autographs, Romney also carved a slow-roasted, suckling pig, otherwise known as a Cuban lechón. He posed for photos next to the pig and gave a bite to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Romney's next stop is in Pompano Beach for a rally at 6:30 p.m. at the Emma Lou Olson Civic Center, 1801 N.E. Sixth St.
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