MIAMI — Cocktails with John McCain? Breakfast with Mitt Romney?
The four leading Republican presidential candidates courted South Florida's Hispanic vote Friday, paying homage to the influential Latin Builders Association as they jockeyed for votes days before Floridians go to the polls on Tuesday.
Romney appeared for breakfast, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the lunchtime speaker and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee spoke just as the dessert and coffee were rolled out.
But Arizona Sen. John McCain stole the show with a happy-hour appearance, snaring the backing of Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., a Cuban-American who was born on the island.
"I understand that he is ready on day one to lead this nation, and I would trust the future and the security of this nation to this man," Martinez said as he introduced McCain. And, he added to applause, "I would not endorse someone that I didn't have total confidence is going to be (Fidel) Castro's worst nightmare."
Martinez, who'd been expected to endorse McCain last week but delayed his decision, said Friday that he talked the issue over with his wife, Kitty, and decided: "I couldn't sit on the sidelines. John McCain is a good man. He needs to be our next president, and I basically just decided I couldn't sit idly by."
The backing came as a blow to Giuliani, who's been close to Martinez and had hoped to win his support.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney's rival campaign called the endorsement a ''good get." So did political observers.
"It's a big deal," said Gus Gil, the immediate past president of the construction association. "It's very important for the community. And it's great for McCain."
Martinez's endorsement could help McCain with a key demographic: the Hispanic vote. About 400,000 of the 3 million Republicans in Florida are Hispanic, most of them of Cuban descent like Martinez. But it could cost McCain points among Republican critics of the immigration plan that Martinez championed and McCain supported and which opponents denounce as "amnesty."
Romney downplayed the endorsement, saying it likely would affect the election only "in a modest way."
But Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party and a key Romney adviser, said the campaign had courted Martinez, as had the others.
"I was under the impression he was going to sit this one out," said Cardenas, who added that the endorsement would have minimal impact so close to the election. "There's very little wooing you can do at this point."
The wooing was at full force at the Latin Builders Association, which managed to score all four candidates in a single day.
With Romney hammering away on the economy in recent days, his appearance before the developers — whose livelihood has been hobbled by a soft housing market and a mortgage crisis — was the perfect platform for the multimillionaire businessman to lay out his plans for an economic turnaround.
He touted his successes, such as his venture capital firm's role in the early days of Domino's and Staples. He also noted that one of his company Bain Capital's first group of significant investors came from a pool of Hispanic businessmen based in Miami — singling out Salvadoran businessman Ricardo Poma.
In his bid to court the builders, Romney painted their industry in patriotic terms.
"What you are doing in creating jobs is not just putting money in your pocket, as important as that it is. It also, perhaps unbeknownst to you, keeps America a strong land," he said.
Giuliani talked about declining home sales and pledged help, citing what he said was his turnaround of New York City.
"I know how to fix this problem. I've seen it before, I fixed it before, and with your help, I will go to Washington and fix it together," he said.
Huckabee turned on the homespun charm, telling the builders that he believes the nation needs to invest more in infrastructure, including roads, a crowd pleaser in an audience of developers.
"It would not only create American jobs, but would do something about traffic bottlenecks that desperately needs to be done," Huckabee said. "Believe me, having been here the last few days, that's something you need to do."
(This story was reported by Miami Herald staff writers traveling with the candidates: Marc Caputo with Mike Huckabee, Oscar Corral with Rudy Giuliani, Tere Figueras Negrete with Mitt Romney and Casey Woods with John McCain.)