Republican John McCain wooed Cuban-American voters on Monday and banked on the support of their leaders to help his presidential campaign win the state that gave President George W. Bush his narrow victory in 2000.
McCain swept into Miami after his big win Saturday in South Carolina, the first contest in the U.S. South as voters choose candidates for the November presidential election. On January 29, Florida hold the next big Republican contest.
The Arizona senator made his first stopover at the Versailles restaurant in Miami’s Little Havana district where he was greeted by pulsating salsa music and a steaming cup of strong Cuban coffee.
A stronghold of the hard-line Cuban exile community, which has been a core constituency of the Republican Party for decades, McCain was joined at a packed news conference by U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
The three have long wielded strong influence in south Florida and are leading supporters of sanctions aimed at forcing the Cuban government to make sweeping economic reforms.
McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, vowed not to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Havana until it holds free elections.
“We will continue the embargo,” he said.
In remarks to a local Spanish-language radio station, McCain also said that one day, in a free Havana, he would like to confront the Cubans who he said had tortured some of his fellow American prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.
“I’ve seen the face of what’s in Cuba,” he told reporters at Versailles. “It’s one of the most oppressive and repressive regimes in history.”
‘WIND AT OUR BACK’
The white-haired former fighter pilot predicted he would do well in the Florida primary election, the last battleground before the big voting day of February 5 when 22 states hold contests.
“We come into Florida with some wind at our back,” McCain said, referring to his win in South Carolina. “We’re confident we can win here.”
Later, at a news conference, McCain stopped short of calling himself the front-runner in the state where rival Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, hopes to score a breakthrough in a large state with a large population of retired New Yorkers.
McCain said his support among Cuban-Americans gave him an extra dose of confidence, however, and noted that one recent poll also showed him leading among Republicans in New York as well as Florida.
“We all know that Republicans have to carry the south big if we’re going to win a national election,” he said. “I’m very confident we can win here.”
McCain addressed several economic issues in his remarks, but he stressed his national security credentials over other issues, saying repeatedly he was the candidate “most qualified to take on the challenge of radical Islam and extremism.”