Wavering Latinos hold key to Sunshine State

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The Independent US

Al Gore gained an important boost in a critical swing state yesterday when The Miami Herald gave him its endorsement, arguing that Florida would be better off choosing him for his experience in Washington and for his more cautious approach to cutting taxes.

Al Gore gained an important boost in a critical swing state yesterday when The Miami Herald gave him its endorsement, arguing that Florida would be better off choosing him for his experience in Washington and for his more cautious approach to cutting taxes.

The support from the Herald, which declined to take sides in the last two presidential contests, may help Mr Gore snatch Florida from his Republican opponent, George W Bush. New polls show the Vice-President leading by a small margin in the state, where a large prize of 25 electoral college votes is at stake.

He will be hoping that those heeding the newspaper will include the state's wavering Latinos. Hispanics have become a pivotal constituency in Florida, where they account for 9 per cent of the voting population, as in several other battleground states. Nationally while Latinos seem to be split evenly between Gore and Bush,in Florida, according to most polls, they favour Mr Bush by about 10 points.

This is explained partly by the concentration of Cuban Americans in Miami. Their traditional distrust of the Democratic Party was fuelled when the Clinton administration repatriated Elian Gonzalez, the young Cuban boy rescued from the sea almost a year ago. But non-Cuban Hispanics, whose numbers are growing fast in Florida, from the Caribbean and South America, are expected to lean to the Democrats.

The schism in the community was on vivid display at a Hispanic music festival held on Sunday at Bayside, a waterfront development of shops and restaurants in downtown Miami. Felicia Aguene, 75, is a Cuban American and she flashed a kind of you-have-got-to-be-joking smile when asked for her preference; she almost shouted "Bush. Bush. Bush".

Geoffrey Baugan had other ideas. A former airline mechanic who came to the United States from Colombia 30 years ago, Mr Baugan, 59, said he was "for Al Gore all the way". He doesn't trust the Texas Governor and he thinks Mr Gore will be far stronger on foreign policy. Keeping his voice down, he scorned the Cubans in town. "They just vote they way they are told," he said.

Willie Garcia, 71, a retired bookbinder and a musician who arrived from Cuba in 1956, was not even sure that Cuban Americans would opt for Mr Bush. "Sending that child back to Cuba was the best think that Clinton ever did," he insisted. Mr Garcia has no more love for Castro than any other Cuban-American, but that will have no bearing on his decision on polling day. "I will vote for the poor people and so I will vote Democrat," he said.

Hispanics could be just as important elsewhere, including swing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where they appear to be favouring the Vice-President. Across the Rust Belt, they account for only 2 or 3 per cent of registered voters, but their choice could be vital. If they help to tip just one of those states to Mr Gore, they may also help him into the White House. They may similarly determine which man wins New Mexico, a state President Clinton won in both 1992 and 1996 almost entirely because of Hispanic support.

"The Latino vote is important," insists Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William Velasquez Institute, a Hispanic research organisation in Los Angeles. "When you've got to get a dollar and you have 99 cents, that last penny gets you over the top."

This has not escaped the candidates. Both have gone out of their way in recent months to court the fast-growing Hispanic population. Latin speakers were featured at both political conventions. Mr Bush has been running Spanish-language television advertisements in California, and Republican officials suggested that the Texas Governor would be targeting the Hispanic community again this week.

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