Trump, Rubio battle for Hispanic GOP voters in Florida
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida voters are increasingly voicing a similar take on Republican front-runner Donald Trump: "Dice lo que piensa" - Spanish for "he speaks his mind."
Trump boasts that he can win the Hispanic vote in a general election and next week, he faces his first major test in the winner-take-all primary in Florida, a highly contentious swing state with a large and diverse population of Latino voters.
Trump's comments about building a southern border wall and his accusations that many Mexicans in the U.S. are "criminals, drug dealers, rapists" have outraged and alienated many American Hispanics. Yet his tough stance on illegal immigration plays well among Florida's more conservative Latinos. Many Cuban-Americans, especially, view illegal immigration through the same lens as many of their white Republican peers who see immigration as an achievement, not as a right, that shouldn't be taken for granted by those who come to America illegally.
Republican Hispanics want lower taxes, fewer regulations and limited government. National security, the spiraling debt and the preservation of Social Security and Medicare weigh heavily on their minds.
For that reason, Trump has surged in the polls ahead of this crucial contest, even as two Cuban-Americans - Florida's own Sen. Marco Rubio, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz - look to use their heritage in their favor. For Rubio especially, who has collected only two wins so far - one of them in Puerto Rico - Florida's all-or-nothing contest could be his campaign's swan song if he doesn't win.
Rubio told reporters on Friday in West Palm Beach that Tuesday's primary will be "a close election," but that "we are going to win."
The senator is relying on fellow Cuban-Americans to help defeat Trump and capture all of the state's 99 delegates. But the junior senator's membership in the Gang of Eight that pushed for immigration reform has gotten him into as much trouble with conservative Hispanics here and elsewhere in the country.
Florida's demographics are very different from much of the country. The state is home to nearly 479,000 registered Republican Hispanic voters, about 11 percent of all GOP voters.
The majority of the state's Hispanic voters are not Democrats. Republicans and those with no party affiliation comprise more than 60 percent of the state's registered Hispanic voters. About two-thirds of all voters in the state are Cuban-American or Puerto Rican, while the rest trace their roots to Venezuela, Colombia and other Latin American countries.
Many Cubans are indifferent to the issue of illegal immigration since Cubans who make it to U.S. soil are automatically given a pass to stay for up to one year. And since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, most do not rank immigration among their top concerns. If anything, they also oppose illegal immigration and are looking for tougher regulations against immigrants from the Dominican Republic who settle in Puerto Rico illegally.
In the latest Monmouth poll, released Monday, Trump led Rubio by 8 percentage points. But in the southern part of the state, where Cuban-Americans dominate the ranks of GOP voters, Rubio led by 9 percentage points.
Trump sees Florida as a chance to knock Rubio from the race. At a weekend rally in Orlando, Trump repeatedly taunted the senator, calling him "little Marco" and bashing his Senate attendance record.
"If we win Florida, believe me, it's over," Trump told the boisterous crowd, referring to Republican chances of winning the general election.
Trump's campaign plans to spend about $2 million on Florida TV ads by primary day, including one that describes Rubio as a "corrupt, all-talk, no-action politician."
Conservative Solutions PAC, a group promoting Rubio, planned to spend more than $4 million attacking Trump. They are also doing Spanish-language ads_one that promotes Rubio, the other that slams Trump. Three other anti-Trump groups plan to spend a combined $4 million.
Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said "the Hispanic vote could be the linchpin to Rubio winning or losing Florida."
But with only a few days to go until the March 15 contest, many believe Rubio's campaign may end where it began.
Hispanic GOP voters in Orlando and south Florida, both areas are major pockets of Hispanic voters, share in the anger at government that Trump has so skillfully roused as a political outsider.
Voters, like Oscar Amor, a 74-year-old Cuban-American from Miami, voted for Rubio in 2010, but say the Florida senator is "too young and too establishment" to win his vote as a presidential candidate.
He wasn't alone.
Yesmira Saldana, a 38-year-old mother of two from central Florida, said she wishes she could retract her 2010 Senate vote for Rubio because he "doesn't show up to work."
Saldana, who is Puerto Rican and a longtime Republican, said she's voting for Trump.
"Trump is unapologetic and speaks his mind," she said.
Still, with less than a week to go until Florida votes, the contest is far from predictable. Many remain devoted to Rubio, echoing what other anti-Trump Republicans say about the bombastic billionaire.
"Trump has no record and is unprepared to lead the country," said Herminio Orizondo, a Cuban-American Rubio supporter from Orlando. "All he does is talk, talk, talk and talk."