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Puerto Ricans are key in Florida presidential vote

Associated Press Modified: November 4, 2012 at 7:30 am •  Published: November 4, 2012

KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — President Barack Obama has a problem with Florida's important Puerto Rican voters, and it has little to do with the immigration and deportation issues that dominate so much of the national debate involving Hispanic voters.

Florida's two biggest Hispanic groups -- Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans -- have legal statuses not enjoyed by immigrants from other Latin American countries. This makes illegal immigration a tangential issue for them.

Their chief concerns center on Florida's struggling economy, leaders of both parties say. And Florida's high unemployment and foreclosure rates have hit Puerto Ricans hard.

That's a dilemma for Obama. He's counting on big Puerto Rican support to help offset Cuban-American precincts, mainly in Miami, where Republican Mitt Romney expects to do well. Some analysts say he may fall short.

"The Puerto Rican vote is going for Obama," said Florida-based pollster Brad Coker. "But I don't think it's going by the same margin" as in 2008.

More than 1.5 million Hispanics are registered to vote in Florida, nearly 14 percent of the state total. About 592,000 are registered Democrats, and 463,000 Republicans.

Obama's team is working hard to get Puerto Ricans to the polls. Along with the Spanish-language ads on TV and radio, the campaign is organizing raucous caravans with decorated car windows and loud speakers on trucks, a tradition in Puerto Rico elections.

"The issue is, can we motivate the base for a huge turnout," said Bill Richardson, a Latino and former New Mexico governor, as he helped organize a caravan Friday in a heavily Hispanic Orlando neighborhood. Early reports are good, he said, "but we have to drag them out, like we're doing here in this caravan, to motivate early voters."

Richardson, who briefly ran for president in 2008, said Hispanics' enthusiasm for Obama was lagging earlier this year. He thinks that changed in June, when Obama announced that about 800,000 young illegal immigrants with no criminal records could legally stay in the country.

"What has brought the Hispanic community enthusiastically back to the president has been his decision to halt the deportations," Richardson said.

Others are less sure. Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Florida International University, noted that Puerto Ricans and Cubans "don't have an immigration problem."

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and can vote for president if they live in a state or the District of Columbia. Cuban immigrants have special legal standing that stems from the United States' long-running tension with the Castro government.

Moreno said Puerto Ricans and Cuban Americans take umbrage if political rhetoric reaches into emotional areas. He cited instances in 2008, when some GOP candidates said America was "losing its culture" because so many residents speak Spanish. Puerto Ricans and others see that "as not only anti-immigrant, but anti-Latino," he said.

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