TALLAHASSEE — Charlie Crist has scrapped plans to go to Cuba this summer, citing time demands in his campaign for governor and delays in getting federal permission to visit the island nation.
"I had to make a decision," Crist said. "We've got to win this thing, and we can't sap any more of my time or staff's time to the detriment of victory. … I need to stay focused on Florida."
Crist's about-face was immediately called a "flip-flop" by Gov. Rick Scott's campaign, and it follows a recent poll that showed his July plans were not popular with Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county. Crist said his decision not to visit Cuba had nothing to do with public opinion in Miami-Dade, where sentiment about Cuba is more intense than anywhere else in America.
Crist caused a major stir last month when he called for lifting the 1962 U.S. embargo against Cuba, a stance that is gaining popularity with Florida voters. But he went a bold step further and said he wanted to see conditions there firsthand.
Crist said he still supports an end to the embargo and said he'll plan a visit to Cuba next spring if he wins the election.
"We haven't changed our mind. It's just a timing delay," he said.
The poll of 305 Miami-Dade Cuban-American voters by Bendixen & Amandi International, taken June 3-5, showed that nearly one in four, or 24 percent, would be less likely to vote for Crist if he visited Cuba and 5 percent would be more likely to vote for him. For 67 percent of voters, it made no difference.
However, among Cubans, 42 percent said they would be less likely to vote for Crist if he visited Cuba. The sample's margin of error was 4.6 percentage points.
"In my opinion, there was virtually no political upside for him to travel to Cuba," said Fernand Amandi, managing partner of Bendixen & Amandi, which has been polling Cuban-American voters for more than 35 years. "Charlie Crist could very well have been alienating Cuban voters who were otherwise predisposed to vote for him."
The Bendixen & Amandi poll showed Crist favored by 47 percent of county voters and Scott by 35 percent, with 18 percent undecided.
Miami-Dade has a large and politically active population of Cuban-Americans, many of whom fled their homeland after Fidel Castro's revolution in 1959 and vote Republican. But Miami-Dade has been a must-win county for Democrats in statewide elections for generations.
"I think it's a smart move. I think it was a loser from the beginning," said Dario Moreno, an associate professor of politics at Florida International University and political consultant.
Moreno has noted that Crist was the first major statewide candidate in Florida to support an end to the embargo against Cuba after five decades. But he said Monday that Crist could have found himself in the politically perilous position of being photographed shaking hands with one of the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul.
"It would have been very awkward," Moreno said.
As a Republican, Crist backed the embargo, and in his previous campaign for governor in 2006, he criticized his Democratic opponent, Jim Davis, for visiting Cuba on a fact-finding visit as a member of Congress.
A poll of 1,000 Cuban-American voters by Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, conducted between February and May of this year, showed 45 percent opposed the embargo and travel restrictions and 41 percent supported it, with 12 percent undecided. The poll's margin of error was 3.1 percentage points.
Speaking for Scott's campaign, Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera called Crist's planned Cuba visit "disgraceful."
"Charlie Crist's vision for Florida's economy is to propose business ventures with a failed terrorist state," Lopez-Cantera said. "Gov. Scott and I stand with the Cuban-American community and their desire for the Cuban people to be free."
Crist said that his Cuba trip also was being stymied by the federal bureaucracy and that it was taking a lot longer than anticipated for the Treasury Department to process his request for a license to visit the island.
"It was dragging on and dragging on," Crist said. "We can just as easily go there next spring."
Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.