TAMPA — Juan Velazquez's words made Evelyn Hale cringe.
"I'm going for (John) McCain," said the empanada shop worker of Puerto Rican descent. "I see him more as a leader."
"Not to be racist,'' he added, "but if (Barack) Obama wins, black people are going to want back what was taken from them. . . . A lot of racial things are going to start to happen if Obama wins."
Hale, 28, left frustrated because she thinks Obama's message isn't reaching Hispanics and the Democrats aren't connecting with them as voters.
A Democrat who is half Colombian, Hale started the Hispanic Vision Forum this year with Republican co-founder Angelette Aviles, 32, who is of Puerto Rican descent. It is a nonpartisan effort that the women fund out of their own pockets to encourage Florida Hispanics to realize their political power and vote.
They also use polls, focus groups and articles about Hispanics posted on a blog and Web site to educate the presidential candidates about how to reach the diverse Hispanic community in Florida — from Cubans in Miami, to Puerto Ricans in Orlando to a blend of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and South Americans in the Tampa area.
South Florida Cuban-Americans have historically leaned heavily toward Republicans, while Central Florida Hispanics lean Democratic. Still, the women acknowledge that Hispanics tend to vote for the person and the issues, not the party.
Hale and Aviles disagree on politics, but say both candidates have a long way to go to reach a population that could swing the presidential election.
For instance, the media and candidates have been focusing on immigration reform. But the forum's polls show that the economy is the top issue for Hispanic voters, with immigration reform ranking 10th on a list of priorities. Other polls reveal that education tops the list among Hispanic voters.
When asked about immigration in a forum focus group, more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters said that securing the border should be the top priority.
Hale says she's tried to get the word to Obama's campaign about the hesitancy that even some Democratic Hispanics have about him because of lingering tension between blacks and Hispanics involving, among other things, competition over jobs.
"What we're saying to them is that Obama is not flying, he's not connecting with (Hispanics)," she said following a voter registration project at the empanada store in Tampa.
Still, a recent AP-Yahoo News poll found Obama leading McCain 47 percent to 22 percent among Hispanic voters with 26 percent undecided.
Among Hispanics, Hillary Clinton beat Obama by large margins in the Democratic primary. Now, some of her Hispanic supporters are undecided about the general election.
Behind the counter at Amigos One Stop Grocery in Tampa, Mari Martinez said she backed Clinton in the primary. But now she doesn't know who to vote for in November. Revealing how much Hispanic votes can shift between parties, she'd also voted for Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
"Hillary, she went through a lot of stuff and supported her husband 100 percent," said Martinez, originally from Ecuador. "No matter if he was wrong, she protected her guy."
She doesn't know enough about Obama, she says, and doesn't like McCain because she thinks he's too old for the job.
McCain also has a lot of work to do connecting with Hispanics, said Aviles, who is also the area director of the McCain Hispanic Coalition and runs a communications consulting company.
But, she says, the real campaigning has only just started.
Both candidates recently spoke to large national Hispanic leadership groups.
Obama's campaign opened a state headquarters in Ybor City this week, and McCain has satellite offices in Tampa and Orlando.
The women say both candidates need to reach out to Florida's Hispanic communities with personal messages about family, education and the economy, important issues for them. They can't just translate speeches.
Voters want to hear more, too.
"I'm going to talk from a neutral position," said Noel Fernandez, co-owner of Florida Bakery, standing behind a counter of cookies and breads. "Obama will come with change. McCain is the same, the same. But still, I don't know."
The top issue for him is health care, he said. That's why he voted for Hillary Clinton. "She had a good medical plan a long time ago," he said.
Hale said she believes both candidates are trying harder with Hispanics. But sometimes the campaigns reach out to the same people. The Tampa Bay area and the I-4 corridor are a combination of new citizens and Hispanics with decades of roots.
"Tampa Bay has changed a lot in the last 10 years," said Hale, who also heads the Hispanic Alliance of Tampa Bay, which includes 40 organizations.
"If they really want to do a good job, either McCain or Obama, they need to focus and get people in there who truly understand the Hispanic culture," Hale said.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Saundra Amrhein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.