Politics & Government

Old standby issue Cuba is missing from Miami House races

Record foreclosures, a rising jobless rate and Miami's ever-changing mosaic of voters have altered the landscape for South Florida's three hotly contested congressional races, unexpectedly pushing Cuba to the fringes of debate.

In years past, Cuba has been a dominant issue and given the three hard-line Cuban-American Republicans an edge among like-minded, motivated voters. But with a faltering economy and increasingly diverse districts, the Cuba debate has largely receded to Spanish language radio as the candidates trade barbs on taxes, trade and fitness for office.

At the Little Havana Activities Center for seniors last week, the customary cry of ''Viva Cuba libre!'' was replaced by anxious talk about pocketbook issues.

Only former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, mentioned the island, and only in a nostalgic reference to a Cuban president who ended his second term a decade before the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power.

''Cuba? Why mention Cuba? It's sad, but Cuba is a lost cause,'' said Lucas Ravelo, 83, of Little Havana. Once impassioned about overthrowing Castro, he says he's now more preoccupied with his Social Security check and the economy.

A recent poll shows Cuba but a blip, even among Cuban Americans, who cited the economy as their top worry.

''The issue that has taken over this election is the economy,'' said pollster Dario Moreno, who has surveyed voters in all three congressional races for Univision 23. "When people are worried about losing their jobs, losing their homes, the impact of Cuba sort of diminishes.''

Lincoln Diaz-Balart's brother, Mario Diaz-Balart, is being challenged by former Miami-Dade Democratic Party chairman Joe Garcia. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen faces Pinecrest businesswoman Annette Taddeo.

The incumbents -- who champion hard-line restrictions against Cuba and have been criticized by their rivals for being a ''one trick pony'' for their focus on the island -- have sought to broaden their portfolios, touting at campaign events the federal dollars they say they've brought back to South Florida.

''People want to hear what we'll do to get our economy back on track,'' said Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who nevertheless courted his base on Sunday, shaking hands among a group of elderly exiles at the Big Five Club in West Miami-Dade. "They want a prescription for action.''

Democrats contend that the economic outlook, along with the district's changing demographics -- a growing number of non-Cuban Hispanics, Democratic voters and independents -- are creating new opportunities for Democrats and forcing all the players to tailor their messages.

''The independents, African Americans, non-Cuban Hispanics, Anglos, that's been our strategy all along,'' Taddeo said. "I've got to tell you, it's mostly the media that asks about Cuba. Everyone else wants to know about the economy.''

Voter registration figures show all three districts have lost a once-formidable Republican edge. Though the contest between Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Martinez has soaked up most of the ink, Mario Diaz-Balart may be most vulnerable: The district he created for himself in 2002 is increasingly younger and less Republican. The GOP still retains the lead, but only by 3,364 voters -- a precipitous drop from 2006, when there were 21,818 more Republicans than Democrats.

Democrats also hope to benefit from an expected boost among Democratic voters energized by Barack Obama's presidential bid. A big turnout in black neighborhoods like Richmond Heights and Goulds could benefit Mario Diaz-Balart's opponent, Garcia, who has campaigned at black churches across the district, handing out fans that show him shaking hands with Obama.

''We've gone to fairs in Homestead, picnics in Immokalee, homeowner association meetings in Golden Gate,'' said Garcia. "If you have a barbecue in the district with a lot of smoke, you may have me show up.''

The district has the largest number of Colombian-Americans of any district in the country, and the pair have tussled over who more strongly supports a trade agreement with Colombia. Diaz-Balart recently took a top House Republican to tour a Colombian-American flower importer and distributor in Doral, touting his backing of the agreement, which has been stalled by House Democrats.

Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Martinez have campaign offices in the Cuban heart of the district -- Hialeah, which accounts for about one-third of the voters. Though voters in the city are mostly Republican, Martinez is hoping to capitalize on his years as the popular mayor to convince some to split their tickets.

Both men's campaigns also extend into the Democratic-leaning precincts of Broward County, where neither is as well-known and Cuba is even less of a concern. It's there that Martinez needs a healthy showing to offset Diaz-Balart's support in the GOP strongholds of Sweetwater and Doral in Miami-Dade. In those West Miami-Dade cities' large Nicaraguan communities, Diaz-Balart has boasted of championing legislation to prevent Nicaraguans from being deported.

Diaz-Balart walks door-to-door in Broward most weekends, and Martinez, who boasts support from a number of elected Democrats in the county, hosts frequent coffees.

For some voters, all they know about either candidate is what they see in a barrage of attack ads.

''The fact that he's been charged with corruption doesn't sit well with me,'' Mercedes Copeland, a Pembroke Pines nurse, said of Martinez's corruption conviction, which was reversed on appeal. A registered independent and African-American, Copeland plans to vote for Barack Obama -- and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who appeared at her door on a recent Saturday, handing her a campaign flyer fashioned just for Broward voters.

Martinez is going where Diaz-Balart has not, courting voters who say they welcome the new competition.

''It's always been the Diaz-Balarts,'' said Frank Shufelt, a small business owner in Miami Lakes who voted early for Martinez. "We're all pretty enthused about the races.''

Political analysts have cast the election challenges to the Diaz-Balarts as a referendum on whether younger Cuban Americans are weary of exile politics. Indeed, the Democrats have won over a growing number of younger Cuban-Americans who side with the party's opposition to restrictions that limit travel to Cuba to once in three years.

''I changed parties after that,'' said Luis Sierra, 34, a Hialeah resident who fondly remembers ''Mayor Raul'' and voted for him last week. ``The Republicans lost me with that one.''

But at least for now, the incumbents can count on voters like Ines Cabrera, 84, who came to the United States from Cuba in 1969 and has already cast her ballot for John McCain and Mario Diaz-Balart.

''He's been good with the people,'' the South Miami-Dade woman said, adding that she would have voted for either brother. "Apart from that, I'm Republican. I won't vote for any Democrat.''