MIAMI — The "800-pound gorilla'' in the room at Tuesday's closed-door meeting between the newly crowned Republican nominee for governor and Hispanic state legislators wasn't their strong support for his former rival, according to one participant.
It was Rick Scott's hard-line stance on illegal immigration.
Scott has championed Arizona's new law, which requires police to question suspected illegal immigrants, and says he wants to bring a similar law to Florida. Some Hispanic Republicans say they hope the issue will take a back seat to the economy between now and the Nov. 2 general election.
"I asked about the issue going forward, and he said immigration is an issue, but the more pressing one is jobs and the economy," said state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera of Miami, who has concerns that an Arizona-type law could infringe on civil liberties.
"That was the thorniest issue at the meeting as far as the Miami-Dade delegation is concerned," said state Rep. Steve Bovo of Hialeah, who heads the Hispanic caucus. "We wanted to communicate that this is a very sensitive issue for us. … What happens if my dad gets pulled over and he left his license at home?"
Bovo and Lopez-Cantera were among the Hispanic lawmakers who later joined Scott at a ''unity rally'' at Sweetwater City Hall. The event aimed to smooth over the animosity Scott faced from the political establishment during his primary battle against Attorney General Bill McCollum.
One exception to Scott's isolation during the primary season was Sweetwater Mayor Manuel Marono, who accompanied Scott to the rally in his hometown and introduced him last week at his election night party. Marono has been a fixture by Scott's side during campaign events in Miami-Dade for weeks.
Scott is being encouraged to consider a Hispanic from South Florida as his running mate to broaden his appeal and defuse the immigration issue.
"We've never seen a Hispanic on the top of the ticket. It's time," Lopez-Cantera said.
Al Cardenas, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said the explosive campaign debate over immigration was one of the reasons for the low turnout in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County. Turnout in last week's primary was about 17 percent, one of the poorest showings in the state.
"I think the immigration debate discouraged Hispanics from turning out in greater numbers," Cardenas said.
Scott's chief competitor in the governor's race, Democrat Alex Sink, has said she opposes the Arizona law.
Scott didn't mention immigration in a short speech at the rally before about 250 people, and he didn't answer a question afterward about whether the issue would fade from his campaign. The Naples multimillionaire and first-time candidate shook up the sleepy Republican primary with an unprecedented media blitz that included a number of spots on immigration.
Once Scott started rising in the polls, McCollum retreated from his previous criticism of the Arizona law. But Scott continued to pillory him as a do-nothing, career politician.
"This race was won on one issue. Who is going to change the economy and bring jobs?" Scott asked the crowd in Sweetwater.