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Marco Rubio Targets Hispanic Voters in South, Central Florida

Marco Rubio Targets Hispanic Voters in South, Central Florida

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HIALEAH, Fla.—As Florida Sen. Marco Rubio fights to keep his presidential bid alive by winning the Republican primary in his home state on March 15, he needs to perform strongly with one group in particular: Hispanics in southern and central Florida.

On Wednesday, he sought to whip up supporters in this city northwest of Miami where the population is 95% Hispanic, mostly Cuban-American like him.

“This race is going to be very hard-fought, and the difference will be made here in South Florida,” he told a crowd gathered at a stadium, speaking in Spanish. “You need to turn out to vote at an overwhelming, historic level.”

Florida is a winner-take-all state. The candidate who wins the most votes, wins all 99 of the state’s delegates.

In Mr. Rubio’s home county of Miami-Dade, which includes Hialeah, Hispanics make up 73% of the 354,000 registered Republicans, by far the largest trove of such votes, according to the Florida division of elections. To offset businessman Donald Trump’s perceived strength in parts of northern and central Florida, Mr. Rubio “needs to pile up votes in South Florida,” said Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida.

Leading Cuban-American elected officials, including U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, endorsed him after former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush dropped out of the race.As Mr. Rubio was suffering a string of losses in the Super Tuesday states on March 1, he flew to Miami to rally a crowd at Tropical Park. He has returned repeatedly since then, and will participate in a GOP debate with the three other GOP candidates at the University of Miami on Thursday night.

Conservative Solutions PAC, a political committee backing Mr. Rubio, has run a Spanish-language TV ad urging Miami Latinos to help “one of our own be the next president.” Another group, Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy, has run a Spanish-language radio ad featuring Willy Chirino, a Cuban-American singer, saying, “Marco fills us with pride” and “carries with him our hopes and dreams.”

Mr. Rubio is reaching out not only to Cuban-Americans but to other Hispanic groups whose numbers are increasing. On Wednesday, an organization called Venezuelans with Marco Rubio held a press conference to laud his efforts to combat human-rights violations in their home country, and aired a message Mr. Rubio recorded for them in Spanish in which he assured them he would “continue working in support of the liberty, democracy and respect for human rights of the Venezuelan people.”

Latino voter enthusiasm in Miami-Dade appears significant. So far, 19% of Hispanic registered Republicans in the county have cast early ballots—in-person or absentee—compared to 15% of Florida Republicans as a whole, according to an analysis by Daniel Smith, a professor at the University of Florida.

“Hispanic Republicans in Miami-Dade are over-performing,” he said. “For those discounting Rubio, I think it’s premature.”

Though it is impossible to know how many of those votes are for Mr. Rubio, analysts say it is likely that most of them are. A recentMonmouth University poll found that the non-white Republican electorate, mostly Cuban-Americans and other Hispanics, appeared to prefer Mr. Rubio over Mr. Trump, but the sample sizes were too small to provide exact percentages.

Still, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who also is Cuban-American, is making a play for the same bloc. On Wednesday, he held a rally in Miami at which one of the speakers was Manny Roman, the Hispanic vice chairman of the Republican Party of Miami-Dade County who endorsed Mr. Cruz in December.

“Y’all know how to make a Cuban feel welcome,” Mr. Cruz told the crowd.

In central Florida, a much smaller but still important chunk of Hispanic Republican votes lies in the Orlando area, which has a booming Puerto Rican population. Hispanics make up 12% of the 200,000 registered Republicans in Orange County, which includes Orlando, and 22% of the 43,000 in Osceola County, which encompasses the Puerto Rican bastion of Kissimmee.

In Orange County, only 9% of Hispanic registered Republicans have cast early ballots so far, meaning they are under-performing compared to the statewide GOP average, according to Mr. Smith’s analysis.

The urgency to drive up turnout in the primary next week dominated remarks by a bevy of Cuban-American elected officials who preceded Mr. Rubio on the stage in Miami on Wednesday. “Every time Hialeah, South Florida has gone out to vote, we have won elections,” said Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez.

Among Mr. Rubio’s supporters in the crowd was Rolando Perez, a 73-year-old retiree who lives in nearby Opa-Locka. Only the Florida senator “can straighten out this country,” from improving the economy to taking stronger stances with hostile foreign governments, he said. Mr. Trump, he added, is “an old crazy man” who “speaks badly about everyone.”

Mr. Rubio already has Mr. Perez’s vote in the bag. The Opa-Locka resident mailed in his absentee ballot just a few days ago.

Because the Florida senator has been trailing the billionaire businessman by anywhere from 8 to 23 percentage points in recent polls, he needs to stand out in Thursday night’s debate.

“He’s got a great home-field advantage,” said David Johnson, a Republican consultant in Tallahassee. But “he needs a game-changing” performance.

Mr. Rubio batted away rumors that he was planning to drop out of the contest, calling them “categorically false.”

“I will continue to be a candidate,” he said. “In this community, we never give up.”

Earlier this week, Mr. Rubio campaigned in the Orlando area, holding a rally at an airport hangar in Sanford and visiting a Puerto Rican bakery in Kissimmee. And he recently won the GOP primary in Puerto Rico by a landslide, an accomplishment that could boost him on the mainland.

“It’s all hands on deck,” said Bertica Cabrera Morris, a regional chairman for Mr. Rubio’s 2010 Senate campaign in central Florida who is now volunteering for his presidential run. “We believe Marco represents the Hispanic community better than any other campaign today.”

On Wednesday, a coalition of Latino conservative groups, including the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, held a press conference in Orlando to urge voters to stop Mr. Trump by voting for Mr. Rubio.

Original article can be read here: http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2016/03/10/marco-rubio-targets-hispanic-voters-in-south-central-florida/