By Steve Weinstein
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Soon the lights went out, the curtain went up, and Obama appeared at a podium in front of a 20-foot-tall illuminated American flag. When the audience ceased its adoring roar, he began the stump speech that has drawn large crowds on the campaign trail. "The problem isn't the American people," he said. "It's the can't-do, won't-do, won't-even-try, don't-know-how style of politics in Washington. It's shut out the American people, let 'em down, and forced them to settle year after year."
No one was invisible to Obama, it seemed. He saw everyone: folks without health insurance, troops who have performed brilliantly in Iraq but need to come home, parents who can't afford college tuition, people who need a biofuels infrastructure in this country. He even saw Cuban-Americans.
"We need a new foreign policy in this country that has less Washington sense and more common sense, less Washington judgment and more good judgment!" Obama told the crowd. "Let me give you one example that many of you are all too familiar with: Just 90 miles from here, there's a country where justice and freedom are out of reach. That's why my policy towards Cuba will be guided by one word: liberty. Libertad!"
After declaring that "freedom for all Cubans must begin with justice for Cuban political prisoners," Obama got to the heart of the matter. "There are few better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban-Americans and the money they send to Cuba to help make their families less dependent on Castro's regime," he said. "That's why, when I'm president, I'll grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted rights to visit families and send remittances to the island!" The audience erupted in cheers. "Because that's the way to bring about real change in Cuba!"
Democratic Party apparatchiks from the Obama campaign and the progressive New Democrat Network note that the number of Cuban-Americans who are registered Republicans stands at a little more than 80 percent but has fallen 10 percent over the past 10 years. But that's not the big news. "Recent polling shows a 6 percent increase in Cuban-Americans who will vote Democratic next year," says Miami- based political consultant Jeffrey Garcia. "You're talking 35,000 votes."
That may sound like a pittance, but if the margin of victory in November 2008 falls between Bush's margins of 537 votes in 2000 and 381,000 votes in 2004, those votes loom larger. Add the tens of thousands of other Hispanics who have registered as Democrats in Florida since 2003 and, as Garcia contends, "the Republicans are in deep shit."
He and others point to opinion surveys that consistently find that about two-thirds of Cuban exiles who moved to the U.S. before 1984 support travel sanctions, but that two-thirds of those who migrated after that oppose them. Many latter-day immigrants from Cuba, however, aren't U.S. citizens and can't voteand many who are don't vote. But those who can and do are now likely to favor Obama, some strategists think. "The Cuba issue was dead as a status quo issue. Everybody cuts to the right and nothing happens," says the NDN's Joe Garcia. "Obama cut down the middle. He didn't just say, 'I'll lift the embargo,' because that's not a nuanced position. He said, 'Look, I'm for the embargo as a philosophical thing. You shouldn't give in to dictatorships. However, when it comes to reaching out to family, we should use Cuban-Americans as agents of change.' So he gives a respectful nod to an important electorate. It speaks to a huge percentage of Cuban-Americans who are very frustrated, and it speaks to younger Cuban-Americans who are very interested in this issue because they have family abroad. And it also speaks to some older Cuban-Americans who are tremendously frustrated by the policies of the U.S. government."
NDN president Simon Rosenberg, who formed the group after splitting from the more centrist Democratic Leadership Council dominant during Bill Clinton's era, predicts that Obama's Cuba concoction will generate votes beyond the Cuban-American realm. "The brilliance of this position by Obama is that it's also very appealing to the non-Cuban community in South Florida, who are deeply weary of the fight with Cuba," says Rosenberg. "What he's saying to the people of Florida is 'I'm willing to take risks to solve this problem.' That's going to be very appealing to non-Cubans as well as Cubans."
Rosenberg knows better than to publicly comment on Hillary Clinton's endorsement of the Bush policy but suggests that she could always change her mind. "My line on this is that, if Democrats actually pursue this issue next year, it will be a wedge issue in the Cuban-American community against the Republicans," he said. "Because the Republicans are in the wrong place on this in terms of opinion in the Cuban-American community. I also think they're in the wrong place on this in terms of geopolitics. I think the Bush administration made a mistake, and they haven't corrected it."
Other pundits think Obama's policy move may not matter because Clinton is opting for the road more traveled, namely the one with Republicans on it. "Thirty thousand is a lot of votes," acknowledges Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. But, he adds, "you certainly don't win the Democratic primary in Florida with the votes of Cuban-Americans. They are disproportionately Republican." Moreover, Clinton would be millions of Democratic votes ahead of Obama even without Cuban-American Democrats in the picture. "She's only up 30 points in Florida over Obama," Brown notes sarcastically. Therefore, Hillary's Cuba-policy position, he speculates, "might well be something aimed at the general election rather than the primary."