MIAMI — Puerto Rican-born chef Julio Alicea, 63, used to be a Republican, voting in solidarity with the cause of Cuban exiles. Not this year.
"We are losing the American Dream. Who cares about Cuba?" he said, after casting an early ballot Tuesday for Raul Martinez, the Democratic challenger of Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Alicea's rejection of Diaz-Balart, the eight-term incumbent in the 21st District, is a signal that the Republican stranglehold on three key congressional seats is in serious jeopardy. The races in the 18th, 21st and 25th districts are closer than they have been in two decades, and a Democratic win in any one of them would not only change the complexion of South Florida politics but potentially soften U.S. policy toward Cuba.
"We are witnessing a revolution in South Florida politics," said Fernand Amandi, vice president of Bendixen & Associates, a leading Hispanic polling firm in Miami that works with Democratic candidates.
Several factors are at work this year. The Democratic Party has a strong presidential contender in Barack Obama. The local candidates are much better known and better funded than previous challengers. And the souring economy has eclipsed Fidel Castro, long the defining issue of any South Florida election.
"Cuba is not the driving force in this election, it's the economy," said Dario Moreno, a pollster with the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. "When people are worried about getting foreclosed on, losing their jobs and their health care, Cuba takes a back seat."
Both Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his younger brother, Mario, who has represented the 25th District since 2002, won their districts by comfortable double digit margins of 16-18 percent in 2006. Defeat for either of them could send a signal to Washington that support for the 46-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba is wavering, analysts say.
Martinez, 59, the former Hialeah mayor, has tightened his race against Diaz-Balart, 54, so much that the Rothenberg Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, calls it a "Pure Toss Up." The latest polling gives Diaz-Balart a 1-point lead, according to RealClearPolitics. The spread had been 11 points when the campaign began in January.
Mario Diaz-Balart, 47, also has his hands full with another high-profile Cuban-American challenger, Joe Garcia, 45, former director of the influential Cuban-American National Foundation. Diaz-Balart's lead is 3 points, also a toss-up, according to RealClearPolitics.
A third Cuban-American incumbent, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, 56, is having an easier time defending her seat in the 18th District, which includes Miami Beach, against a relatively unknown businesswoman, Annette Taddeo, 41.
Martinez and Garcia have run well-funded campaigns with advertising on local radio and television, a first for Democrats in South Florida. The ads have countered attacks from Republican-leaning Spanish-language radio in Miami that have branded them as "traitors" to the Cuban exile cause. One TV ad titled "Wheel of Corruption" portrays Martinez as mired in repeated scandals, including a 1991 public corruption case for which he was convicted in federal court. The verdict was later overturned and subsequent retrials ended in hung juries.
Martinez hit back with a questionable ad that tried to tie Diaz-Balart to a suitcase with $50,000 in illegal campaign contributions from a crooked politician.
The Democrats have sent $1.1-million and a steady stream of high-profile political names to South Florida, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has visited eight times.
The Republican National Congressional Committee has responded with $600,000 in advertising. "We feel good about where things are," said Carlos Curbelo, who advises the Diaz-Balarts. He cited a Spanish language TV poll two weeks ago that showed Lincoln Diaz-Balart with a 14 percent lead, and his brother ahead by 7 points.
There is no doubt that a Cuba-less campaign hurts the Diaz-Balarts, who have built their careers on tightening the screws on Cuba's communist regime.
A recent University of Miami survey found that Cuban-American voters remain very conservative on U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba but are more liberal on social issues.
While polls show older Cuban exiles still strongly favor Republicans, younger second generation Cuban-Americans "tend to be more swayed by economic and bread-and-butter issues," said Amandi. Polls show a majority of Cuban-Americans under 45 voting Democrat. Pollsters say Cuba barely makes the top 10 issues of most concern to Cuban-American voters.
The absence of Cuba from the campaign was no big surprise, according to Curbelo. "The voters know where everybody stands on Cuba. It's not something we need to spend our resources on," he said.
Indeed, all the candidates support the main elements of the embargo. But Martinez and Garcia oppose current restrictions on travel to the island by Cuban-Americans with relatives still living there, as well as limits on cash remittances families send.
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