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CLINTON AVOIDS STATE'S RIFTS

Unlike Obama, she carefully calculates the reaction her comments draw from state Hispanics.

If sweating the details wins elections, Hillary Clinton stands to be the Democrat who runs away with Florida's crucial Hispanic vote.

When an obscure Puerto Rican Democrat, Darren Soto, in the spring won an Orlando area state House race, the Democratic presidential front-runner immediately fired off a congratulatory press release.

When Republican Fred Thompson in South Carolina last month made a clumsy remark about Cuban immigrants, she pounced: "Apparently he doesn't have a lot of experience in Florida or anywhere else, and doesn't know a lot of Cuban-Americans."

And last week she went after Barack Obama for saying in a televised debate that he would unconditionally meet with leaders of hostile foreign countries like Cuba or Venezuela in his first year as president.

"Irresponsible and frankly naive," she called Obama's statement, saying she wouldn't consider such meetings without clearly outlined goals.

"She is so smart to jump on these issues because it displays how moderate she is. It positions her in the center and confirms her position as the only Democrat who's going to get a large percentage of the Cuban vote," said Dario Moreno, a Florida International University political scientist and expert on Hispanic voters. "Among Cuban-American voters right now in Florida, it would probably be (Republican Rudy) Giuliani leading, followed by Hillary."

The Obama-Clinton skirmish highlighted both Clinton's caution and her knack for navigating the minefield that South Florida politics can present.

Still, Florida Obama supporters and other Democrats say they've heard little or no backlash among Hispanic supporters since last week's comment on meeting with leaders of rogue countries.

In South Florida, anything that smacks of softness toward Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez is politically volatile. So Ricky Arriola, a Cuban-American businessman in Miami who recently changed his party to Democrat to help Obama, immediately worried about the fallout when he heard Obama answer that question in South Carolina.

"But amazingly it's had no impact, there's been no buzz at all," said Arriola, 38. "If he'd said, 'End the embargo,' that would have been different, but the concept that you're willing to meet with some of those folks just isn't that inflammatory."

Hispanic voters make up only about 5 percent of the Democratic primary electorate, compared to as much as 18 percent of the Republican primary electorate and at least 12 percent of all Florida voters. The last Democrat to perform well among heavily Republican Cuban-Americans was Bill Clinton, who won 40 percent of the vote in 1996.

"Being soft on Cuba will not win you a Democratic primary in Florida, but can certainly cost you a general election, as Al Gore learned because of Elian Gonzalez," said Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant in Miami-Dade. "If Obama is the nominee, you can bet that his answer in that debate will be in a commercial for the Republican Party."

All the major Democratic candidates argue that America needs more diplomacy, but Clinton and Obama differed when asked in last week's debate if they would commit, without precondition, to meeting with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea during the first year of their presidency.

"I would," Obama responded. "And the reason is this, that the notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of this administration - is ridiculous."

Clinton disagreed: "We're not going to just have our president meet with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez and, you know, the president of North Korea, Iran and Syria until we know better what the way forward would be."

Miami-Dade Democratic chairman Joe Garcia, who is neutral in the presidential race, said Clinton won the round by answering with a pragmatic response, rather than a philosophical one as Obama did. But Garcia said the exchange would have no impact on the Hispanic vote in South Florida. "Do you actually think there's any chance on God's green earth that any of these people stirring this up are going to be anywhere but the Republican side?"

Former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, a Democratic Clinton backer, said many Hispanic voters have come to see the need for a change in policy in Latin America. But they also want reassurance that change won't be reckless.

"Sen. Clinton showed her experience and offered that reassurance," said Martinez.

Obama is scheduled to be in Tallahassee Aug. 24 and the next day in Miami for a speech before Democratic activists. He'll likely have a chance to expand on his position on dealing with Latin and South America.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com or (727)893-8241.

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