MIAMI — Returning to the state that made him a rising star seven weeks ago, Herman Cain stumped Wednesday morning in South Florida as a different candidate, nagged by questions about his foreign policy expertise and his handling of sexual harassment allegations.
The top-tier Republican presidential candidate began the morning at the Claude and Mildred Pepper Center in Sweetwater and was asked by the crowd to talk about Cuba.
"What about Cuba?" he asked. "One of my principles is: Go to the source closest to the problem. You will find the solution ... I want to get from Cuban leaders (in South Florida) a solution of what we should do."
After a translator spoke, Cain said, "I don't want to take the pressure off. I want to put more pressure on. ... Viva Cuba libre!"
The crowd roared.
Cain, who last week stumbled over questions about what he would do in Libya, seemed to know little about Cuba.
His campaign kept reporters at bay, and when he was asked about the Cuban Adjustment Act and the so-called wet-foot/dry-foot policy, Cain seemed stumped. The policy allows Cuban immigrants who have made it to U.S. soil to stay.
"Wet-foot, dry-foot policy?" Cain asked. His press handlers interrupted as Cain diverted his course and ducked back into the building. Later, when he emerged, he was asked again by another reporter. Cain didn't answer.
"Gotta run, gentlemen," he said.
His staff promised he would answer questions later at the Versailles restaurant, a Little Havana nerve center for Miami-Dade's politically active Cuban American community, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the county's 368,000 registered Republicans.
Cain, though, wouldn't talk to reporters there, either.
A Fox News reporter asked Cain what he thought of President Barack Obama's easing of travel restrictions to Cuba.
Cain said that was a "gotcha question."
Later, aboard his campaign bus, Cain was asked again by WPLG-ABC 10 political reporter Michael Putney his position on the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. This time, Cain said he didn't think it is fair for those who make it so close to the United States to be sent back and run the risk of being thrown into Cuban prisons. Cain said he opposed the policy, adding that there has to be "a better way."
At Versailles, Cain sipped a cafecito and munched on croquetas.
"How do you say 'delicious' in Cuban?" he asked.
The crowds were enthusiastic.
In Sweetwater, some of the retirees affectionately referred to him as "el negro," the black man, marveling at the sight of an African-American Republican. African Americans make up just 1.5 percent of the GOP in Florida; 16 percent of the state's population is black.
At Versailles restaurant, Juan Mederos, a 47-year-old from Miami Beach, held up a Cuban flag poster decorated with "Cubans for Herman Cain" and said the businessman outsider was the best person to turn government around. Mederos said he liked Cain's strength. Asked whether the multiple harassment claims against Cain gave him pause, Mederos said, "It has."
But Mederos surveyed the field and figured Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich weren't best for the job.
"On a personal note, I vote for the alpha male, " Mederos said. "Cubans are a conservative people."
Miami-Dade's Republican executive committeewoman, Liliana Ros, though, said she was turned off when Cain said "Free Cuba now!"
She said it was pandering, or more specifically: "B.S."
Cain later appeared at Wings Plus in Coral Springs and then appeared at the Palm Beach County Convention Center in West Palm Beach, where Cain mistakenly said Republicans took back control of the House in 2008 — when that really happened in 2010.
Though the Tampa Bay media market carries the most electoral weight in a GOP primary — followed by Orlando — the Miami-Fort Lauderdale market accounts for about 13 percent of a Republican primary vote. The West Palm Beach media market makes up an additional 9 percent.
South Florida can make a big difference. In the 2008 GOP primary, John McCain rolled up an 80,000-vote margin against Mitt Romney, whom he beat by just 96,000 votes statewide.
Cain is the first of the Republican candidates this season to host a multicity tour in South Florida. He might also attend a conservative rally Friday in Jacksonville and visit Sarasota later in the month.
Florida is fertile ground for Republicans. The unemployment and home-foreclosure rates are stubbornly higher than the nation's.
With 29 Electoral College votes — more than 10 percent of the total needed to win the White House — Florida is the biggest swing state that Obama is most likely to lose, according to recent polls.
Cain outlined his candidacy in three parts: foreign policy, his 9-9-9 tax plan and the need to harvest more domestic energy.
Cain won big applause for saying he would stand by U.S. allies, specifically Israel. And he blamed Obama for having a "foggy foreign policy."
But the candidate has been foggy himself. Cain's troubles deepened Monday in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel during which he struggled with basic questions about Libya. His campaign is also fending off a federal elections complaint alleging that a nonprofit organization run by Cain's chief of staff, Mark Block, impermissibly paid for campaign expenses.
Conservatives, who blamed the staff chief for mishandling Cain's response to the harassment allegations, called for Block to be dismissed. Cain has refused to fire him.
Some Republicans were already questioning Cain's foreign-policy bona fides, and were uncomfortable with the candidate's earlier comments that he didn't know the name of the president of "ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan." Cain later said he was joking.
Miami Herald staff writer Luisa Yanez contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.