Gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott stopped in Little Havana on Thursday at the popular Versailles restaurant to grab a café cubano and chat up the locals — in English.
The GOP hopeful doesn't speak much Spanish and admitted he had never had Cuban coffee, but he said he's going to step up his courting of Hispanic voters with more campaign stops and soon-to-air Spanish-language television ads.
"I plan to spend a lot of time in Miami, go to places like Versailles," Scott said. "I'm going to listen to and try to address all their issues."
That may be easier said than done in Florida, where Hispanics represent a diverse bloc of voters.
Consider the controversial Arizona law, which Scott supports and wants approved in Tallahassee. Polls shows most Hispanics in Florida oppose the law, though Cubans — at least those he met at Versailles — support it.
"As an immigrant, I had to go through the steps of legalizing," said Jose Guerra, 67, a Cuban native who said he would likely vote for Scott. "If you come here as an illegal, you should be sent back. Everyone should go by the same rules. The Arizona law should be continued all over the country, including in this state."
Gonzalo Lopez said he, too, liked Scott's stance on immigration, but wanted to hear more about the candidate's position on Cuba. Scott favors keeping the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Scott, a billionaire from Naples, is positioning himself as an outsider candidate with working-class roots, but the former CEO of hospital chain Columbia/HCA is not a household political name. Yet in the six weeks since announcing his candidacy, he's spent over $11 million on television and radio ads.
The ad barrage has been effective. Polls show he's just 14 percentage points behind Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, the frontrunner in the Republican primary.
In trying to connect with Hispanic voters, who make up 12 percent of all registered state voters, Scott said he doesn't think his position on the Arizona immigration law would hurt him.
The controversial law makes being an illegal immigrant a state crime and requires legal immigrants to carry papers that confirm their legal status. Opponents charge it will lead to racial profiling, while proponents said a person would have to do something illegal before law enforcement questions their immigration status.
In Florida, the law has become a hot campaign issue, with McCollum announcing his support for the measure two weeks ago after he had first denounced it.
Polls show that 58 percent of Floridians support the Arizona immigration law.
"People believe in compliance with the law," Scott said. "They believe in secure borders."
The Little Havana campaign stop wasn't without hiccups. At 8 a.m., Scott arrived but left after about 10 minutes, perplexing locals who said he didn't even say hello. He returned an hour later to the restaurant to speak to Willi Alvarez, a local activist. Scott explained that he wanted to interview some residents away from local television cameras, though his campaign had issued a press release inviting media to the event.
Afterward, Scott passed out campaign bumper stickers to restaurant patrons — who had expected to sip coffee with a politician. But Scott rallied some fans to his campaign.
Among them: Carlos Guillama, 39, the son of Cuban immigrants, quickly introduced himself and pledged that he would "do whatever it takes to help you, sir."