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As Florida's 'Latino primary' looms, a few things to note

Photo by nathangibbs/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Much is being made of the GOP presidential candidates' positions on immigration and their appeal (or lack thereof) to Latino voters in the run-up to next week's Florida primary election. But how representative are Florida's Latino voters of the overall Latino electorate, and where do they fall when it comes to hot-button topics like immigration?

In a telephone panel today that put together pollsters with Latino community leaders, several shared their take on "the Latino primary." Some of the most interesting highlights came from pollster Gary Segura of Latino Decisions, which has been tracking Latino voters' attitudes. A new poll of Latino voters in Florida is to be released Wednesday.

A few noteworthy tidbits that Segura shared in the conversation today:

- South Florida's Latino electorate has traditional voted Republican, as first-generation Cubans have long favored the GOP. But this is changing as: a) the share of Cuban Americans decreases in relation to other Latino immigrant groups in the state; b) younger, second- and third-generation Cuban American voters increasingly lean Democratic.

"Cubans are only three percent of the Latino population nationwide," Segura said. "There is only one place where they matter and that is in Florida politics. But I think that the days of Cuban exceptionalism and the days of Florida exceptionalism are waning."

- Immigration remains among the top issues (though not the only one) for Latinos in 2012, as previous polls have shown. As the candidates campaign in Florida, tough talk on immigration is a gamble, as it's an issue along which ideological lines tend to blur for Latinos. Also blurred, Segura said, are the lines between Latinos who benefit from U.S. policies (like Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, or Cubans, who can obtain legal status easily) and those who don't.

How he put it: "What is most surprising about that is that Puerto Ricans, who don't face citizenship barriers, are very sympathetic to other Latino groups, even though they don't face that obstacle. Cubans are really outside of the Republican mainstream, but inside the national mainstream when it comes to immigration," Segura said. "I think Cuban Americans look a lot like other Latinos on this issue."

- The conversation also touched on potential vice-presidential running mates like junior Florida senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, who himself has taken a hard stance on immigration. (The name of New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, also a proponent of immigration restrictions, has also been dropped.) Other than naming a Latino running mate, how can the GOP presidential candidates best woo Latino voters in Florida?

"The best they can hope for is to drop the harsh (immigration) rhetoric," Segura said." It might allow them to win back some Republican-identified or independent Latinos who may be turned off by that. Not liberal Latinos. But there is a group of Latinos in the middle, the independents or the moderate Republicans, and that is who they should be targeting."

It will be interesting to see how the candidates makes their approach in the coming days. Mitt Romney's recent Spanish-language ads appear tailored to South Florida voters, with key Cuban American lawmakers featured. Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, recently pilloried Romney in a Spanish-language ad for a gaffe in which he used a Fidel Castro slogan.

The Florida primary takes place Jan. 31.