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By Marc Caputo

Miami Herald

Democrat Charlie Crist holds a sizable 53 to 29 percent lead over Gov. Rick Scott among Hispanic voters, according to a new poll that indicates this fastest-growing segment of the electorate doesn't like Republican positions on immigration, Medicaid and the minimum wage.

And despite concerns that Hispanic voters might stay home this election, the survey conducted by the premier Latino Decisions polling firm indicates they could be a force at the polls for Crist just as they were for President Barack Obama in 2012 when he barely won Florida.

"There has been a lot of rumbling from pundits that Latino voters will stay home this year because they are demoralized by the lack of progress on immigration reform," said Loren McArthur, deputy director of civic engagement for National Council of La Raza, a liberal-leaning Hispanic-advocacy group that paid for the survey of 600 registered Hispanic voters.

"When asked whether inaction on immigration means Latinos should turn out or sit home in November," she said, pointing to the poll, "nearly eight times as many Latino voters say turnout is more important than ever this year."

The poll, released as the two major candidates square off today in a debate hosted by Spanish-language network Telemundo, is the latest spot of good survey news for Crist.

The horse-race question aside, the Latino Decisions/La Raza survey bucks some conventional wisdom when it comes to the importance of immigration to Hispanic voters.

At 22 percent, immigration is the second-most-important issue behind fixing the economy (24 percent), and it's virtually tied with health care (21 percent). Creating more jobs and handling unemployment ranks fourth at 19 percent. The poll's margin of error is 4 percentage points.

Hispanics make up 14 percent of the voter rolls. They tend to be poorer, less-insured and more eligible for Medicaid than non-Hispanic whites. More than one-third of Medicaid-eligible residents are Hispanic in Florida, which has one of the nation's highest overall uninsured rates.

A third of Hispanics polled said either they or a family member had been uninsured in the past year, and about half of respondents said they knew someone who is sick and lacks health insurance.

Scott initially called for Medicaid expansion under Obamacare but backed off amid Republican pushback. Crist, who once criticized Obamacare as a Republican, now supports it as a Democrat and has made Medicaid expansion a major campaign issue.

If fully expanded, Medicaid would cover as many as 764,000 more Floridians - including 200,000 Hispanics - with the federal government picking up 90 percent of the cost. When those numbers were cited to poll respondents, 78 percent said Medicaid should be expanded; 17 percent said it shouldn't.

By 79 to 16 percent, Hispanics said the state should pass a law that removes a five-year waiting period to give 25,000 children who are lawful residents subsidized health insurance.