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Democrats to Target Cuban Votes in Fla.

The New Democrat Network on Tuesday announced the launch of what one adviser called “mission impossible”: a serious effort to woo South Florida’s Cuban-American exile community, a group that tends to vote overwhelmingly Republican.

“It’s a lot more difficult than [courting] other Hispanics … but there is an opening there,” NDN pollster Sergio Bendixen told reporters as the group unveiled two new advertisements that are part of a $1 million media buy aimed at the 300,000 members of South Florida’s Cuban exile community.

A solid majority of Cuban exiles who came to America before the 1980s voted for Bush in 2000, but Bendixen said his research shows that there’s “an opening” to convert Cuban Americans to voting Democratic — if the message is right.

Bendixen said his recent surveys have “detected frustration” among some in the Cuban community, especially a feeling that they are being manipulated by Republican office-holders who “demagogue” the Cuba issue.

The NDN has produced two new ads that are designed to speak to those concerns and make the case that Democrats can better provide for the needs of Cuban Americans, such as health care.

The ads will run on Univision, Telemundo and other Spanish-language television stations. The buy budgets $500,000 for broadcasts in the Miami area and another $500,000 for other parts of the state.

In one ad, an exasperated, middle-aged Cuban exile listens in a coffee shop to a politician’s hard-line declaration of “Viva Cuba Libre” on the radio. In Spanish, she asks, “Until when are they going to keep eating our brains?” — a Cuban expression that, roughly translated, means, “When will they stop manipulating us?”

“Cuba’s problem is something we, the Cubans, need to resolve, and in the meantime, what are the Republicans doing to solve the problems we have here?” she continues. “The Democrats have concrete plans to help us, like access to a good medical insurance, cheaper medicines and Medicare. There is no doubt: With the Democrats we will have a better life.”

A similar ad features Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez asking the viewer, “When will they stop trying to confuse us with these false promises?” He too says that Cubans will have “a better life” with the Democrats.

The group is also financing an Internet ad called “Beware of the Name Bush” that lambastes the president in a song sung to a salsa tune.

The ad is only being aired on the Internet, however, to comply with new campaign finance laws, which prohibit the mention of federal candidates’ names in corporate or labor-funded issue advertising on television or radio in the last 60 days before an election.

Nicole Guillemard, director of outreach for the Republican National Committee, said the GOP is working equally hard to engage Cuban Americans and other Latinos in the political process, especially through the committee’s “Team Leader Program.”

That initiative involves recruiting activists from “all walks of life” across the country to communicate a message that draws voters to the Republican Party.

“We have activists who at the local level are talking to their friends and families” about the president’s policies, Guillemard said. “I think in doing that — talking to Cuban Americans — [it becomes clear that] no one has a tougher record than President Bush in fighting the Castro regime while at the same time lending a helping hand to the oppressed people of Cuba.”

NDN’s South Florida effort is part of a larger campaign to attract Hispanic voters for Democrats in Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada. For seven months, the group has been airing ads on Spanish-language media outlets in those states, and it plans to stay on the air through November.

Recent polls by Bendixen suggest that their efforts have made a difference in improving the Democratic party’s image in those states — though he added that the party still has a long way to go before declaring victory.

Following five months of Spanish-language ads that delivered negative messages about Bush’s record, Bendixen’s poll registered an 8 point negative shift in Bush’s job-approval rating.

Delivering the right message — including a hard line on Castro — helped secure retiring Sen. Bob Graham’s (D-Fla.) surprisingly solid support from the Cuban community, even when he was running against solid Republican candidates.

In his 1998 re-election bid, Graham received a whopping 70 percent of the Cuban-American vote in House districts represented by Cuban-American Republicans — among his best showings in the state. In those districts, he garnered 25 percent to 30 percent more of the vote than Gore did in 2000.

While Bendixen also points to “significant gains among Hispanic voters in Florida during the first nine months of 2004,” it doesn’t appear to be enough to turn the tide to the Democrats. While Bush outpaced then-Vice President Al Gore by 31 percentage points among Hispanics in Florida in 2000, Bendixen’s latest poll found Bush’s lead at 22 points — progress, but not enough to flip the result.

NDN leaders acknowledge that they are focusing on a long-term strategy for making inroads into Florida’s Cuban and non-Cuban Hispanic communities.

“This is not for this year. … This is for the long term of the party,” said Maria Cardona, a senior vice president at the New Democrat Network and director of the group’s Hispanic Project. “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Of the 9 million registered voters in Florida, 1.1 million are Hispanic, and of those registered voters, 850,000 are expected to vote on Nov. 2.

Of those 850,000, some 450,000 are Cuban Americans, with approximately 300,000 considered “historic Cubans” (pre-1980 exiles) and 150,000 more recent economic immigrants.

Cardona noted that with 1 percent of the Hispanic vote in the battleground state of Florida translating into 10,000 votes, peeling off even a small slice of traditionally Republican voters is “absolutely crucial.”

NDN President Simon Rosenberg predicted that Democratic Cuban-American voters in Florida will soon outnumber Republicans by two to one.

“In the next 10 to 15 years, Texas and Florida will be overwhelmingly Democratic, as California is,” Rosenberg said.

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