In a move that would have been unthinkable for any statewide Florida candidate just a few years ago, Charlie Crist is planning to visit Cuba this summer.
Nothing is final, but the Democratic candidate for governor is eager to learn more about Cuba as he calls for normalizing relations with the island 90 miles south of Key West.
"We ought to think big. We ought to lift the embargo on Cuba and work with the president and get things done," Crist said earlier this week during a visit to the Versailles Restaurant in Miami, where he didn't disclose that he's considering a visit to the island.
The Little Havana landmark, a frequent Republican campaign spot and exile gathering place, is the last place where soft-on-embargo positions were once espoused.
Crist, too, used to support the embargo and backed it as late as 2010 in his failed U.S. Senate bid as a Republican.
Crist's new position — the latest flip-flop in a string of reversals — was instantly panned by Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his newly appointed lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera.
"He's been a Republican. He has been an independent and a Democrat," Lopez-Cantera said at a campaign stop Wednesday in Miami. "There's one party left in Cuba that maybe he's considering switching to: The Communist Party."
"It just shows Charlie's ignorance on the issue of Cuba," Lopez-Cantera said, adding that his "family lost everything" and that his grandmother's brothers were imprisoned by the Castro regime.
Scott said Crist would be a "puppet" of the Castro regime and would help enrich it by simply traveling there.
Florida's governor has no authority to lift or modify the decades-old embargo, which would take an act of Congress, but he can influence public opinion and the issue is considered a political litmus test for many hardline Castro opponents.
Scott's campaign has been actively reaching out to Cuban-American voters — who comprise more than 70 percent of the GOP voter in Miami-Dade County — by making them aware of Crist's stance on the embargo ever since he voiced the position earlier this year.
Attitudes, however, are changing toward Cuba across Florida and in Miami. Recent polls show a majority of Floridians, including Cuban-Americans, support normalizing relations and lifting travel with the communist island.
Still, Crist's position carries potential political risk as well as rewards. No one's quite sure.
"According to electoral politics, it's a risk," said Sebastián Arcos, associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, which annually polls attitudes about Cuba.
"Politicians look at polls and say, 'Oh, 60 percent are against the embargo,' but they forget that many of the people polled don't vote and that most of the Cubans who vote are supportive of the embargo," Arcos said.
Yet the Cuban-American vote is proportionately shrinking in Miami-Dade and Florida, while Hispanics from Puerto Rico and Central and South America increase in numbers. And polls show non-Cuban Hispanics are far less likely to support the embargo.
Despite the embargo, more Cuban-Americans and other U.S. citizens are travelling to Cuba. And more U.S. money than ever before is being sent to the island by relatives who live in the United States.
But embargo hardliners are still more likely to vote and base their vote on that issue, said Dario Moreno, an FIU pollster and political science professor. "This is poking the bear," he said.
Still, Cuban-Americans older than 65 were already backing Scott, so there's a chance Crist's new position isn't damaging, said Moreno, pointing to a recent poll of 1,000 Miami-Dade voters he conducted for a private client that showed the Republican earning about 59 percent of their vote compared to 22 percent for Crist.
Yet among non-Cuban Hispanics, Crist led Scott 43-29 percent.
Moreno said another growing segment of Hispanic voters, Venezuelans, could be antagonized against Crist if it appears he's sidling up to the Castro regime, which is supporting Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro and his administration's violent repression of protestors in the South American country.
Overall, Crist is beating Scott in Miami-Dade 49-33 percent. And that's an improvement for Crist of 4 percentage points since a previous March poll Moreno conducted. The numbers surprised Moreno because, he said, Scott has spent so much — about $8 million statewide — on television ads in the past two months.
"This shows the first round of Scott's ads weren't effective," Moreno said.
Moreno also said he suspected that the Scott campaign's shoddy treatment of fundraiser and Coral Gables billionaire Mike Fernandez hurt its standing in Miami-Dade — especially after Fernandez told the Miami Herald that a business partner of his was offended that he heard Scott staffers joke around in mock Mexican accents on the way to a Chipotle restaurant.
That issue is fading, though, and he said that Scott should derive some benefit from appointing Lopez-Cantera, advertising in Spanish and supporting a bill giving in-state college tuition rates to undocumented immigrants.
As for Crist, Moreno said, the candidate has to decide how he'll campaign on Cuba as an issue. If Crist calls for more Democratic reforms on the island and doesn't appear to be a tool of the Castros, it could earn him votes — even from Republicans.
Meantime, Crist's stance puts him at odds with Florida's Democratic standard-bearers: U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chair who supports the embargo along with the state's only statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, who has toyed with running for governor against Crist.
President Barack Obama's administration has not called for the end of the embargo, though he has allowed for more travel and cash remittances. Also, his administration has kept Cuba on the state-sponsor of terror list.
But Moreno said Crist's new position won't really harm him with Democratic voters.
At the very least, it shows Crist is ready to take risks and campaign hard — and unpredictably — in South Florida, a Democratic stronghold where Crist needs a big turnout to win in November, Moreno said. Crist still needs to win the Democratic primary in August against former state Sen. Nan Rich.
Outside of Miami-Dade, support for the embargo is even weaker. Politicians from Tampa Bay, Crist's home base, have called for more normalized relations.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, lauded Crist's move. Last year, she joined a nonprofit group to travel to Cuba, which could be one way Crist would be able to go there.
"I am very pleased that others will travel to Cuba, speak with the outgoing and friendly Cuban people, stand up for American values, and learn for themselves." Castor said Wednesday.
Those from Miami-Dade, however, tend to be more supportive of the embargo or say nothing of lifting it.
At Wednesday's Scott campaign event, state Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said Crist had betrayed Cuban-Americans and that he had "no backbone."
When Crist visited Miami a few days before, he suggested that the real bold move was to oppose the embargo, not support it. He also made it clear that he's thinking not just of Cuban-American exiles, but of Hispanics who hail from other countries and of South Florida businesses who want more trade relations with Cuba.
"We're the gateway to Latin America. We're the gateway to South America," Crist said. "We've got to be doing more and doing better."
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Marc Caputo at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.
Correction: U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor traveled to Cuba with a nonprofit group. An earlier version of this story was incorrect.