McCain courts Cuban vote, reminds Florida of links to the state

Jan 22, 2008

McCain courts Cuban vote, reminds Florida of links to the state

Associated Press Writer

MIAMI (AP) — John McCain courted the Cuban vote Monday and reminded Florida voters of his history in the state, though he may have alienated hurricane-weary voters with his opposition to national catastrophe insurance.

Florida has emerged as a showdown state for Republican rival Rudy Giuliani, who has been campaigning here for weeks while McCain focused on his successful strategy to win New Hampshire and then South Carolina.

“I’ve been in this state for decades,” the Arizona senator said, mentioning at nearly every campaign stop from Miami to Jacksonville to Pensacola that he has lived, worked and campaigned on behalf of others in Florida in the past.

He told local reporters in a hurricane strike zone that he did not support national catastrophe insurance – a position certain to rankle some Floridians and, perhaps, draw fire from his opponents, namely Giuliani.

“I believe that this nation and federal government has an obligation to help out in any tragedy or natural disaster,” McCain said during a round-table. “Very badly, we need to fix our ability to bring relief, help and assistance, both short term and long term, to the victims of disaster.”

While he said he supports state efforts, McCain said: “I do not support a national catastrophic insurance policy. That insurance policy is there, and it’s called FEMA, and it’s called disaster preparedness and it’s called addressing disasters.” Nevertheless, he said of the Federal Emergency Management Agency: “I still do not have confidence that FEMA is capable of handling all of those responsibilities.”

Coming off two big victories, McCain faces stiff challenges from Giuliani, the former New York mayor who for weeks has planted himself in his must-win state, as well as two former governors – Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas.

Recent Florida polls show a tight four-way race in the state that offers its winner a hefty 57 delegates toward the Republican nomination and serves as a gateway to nearly two dozen states that vote on Feb. 5.

McCain hopes his personal and professional links to the state as well as his military background will help him break out of the pack in a state that is home to a large number of veterans and active duty service members.

“We come into Florida with some wind at our back, and recognize that we’ve got some hard campaigning in the next 8 days or so,” McCain told reporters.

Looking beyond Florida, McCain said he was encouraged by a pair of New York polls that showed him with double-digit leads over Giuliani and said: “Maybe we’re going to win in New York.” McCain travels to that state, which votes Feb. 5 and has 101 delegates up for grabs, on Tuesday for a fundraiser.

He appeared more certain about his Florida chances.

“I’m confident that we can win here in this very important state that represents so much of America and our base begins here in Miami with the Cuban American community,” McCain said as he looked for support in the Little Havana section of Miami.

Cuban immigrants are a significant voting block in South Florida – and McCain is fighting with Giuliani for their backing. That was evident at the Versailles Restaurant, where McCain and his wife, Cindy, navigated a media crush to order Cuban espresso. Two giant Giuliani banners were strung from the sides of neighboring buildings.

Then McCain appeared at a news conference flanked by three members of Miami’s congressional delegation – Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – as well as Roberto Martin, a Cuban who spent 28 years in a Castro gulag.

McCain talked of “a long, long relationship with Cuban American community” and said: “I’m proud to have sat on the flight deck of U.S. Navy Aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis.” He was part of Attack Squadron 65 on the USS Enterprise as it circled the island nation in the 1960s.

He also argued that he has “fought for the freedom of the Cuban American community” by calling for the U.S. embargo to continue until the country holds free and fair elections. And, he mentioned that his fellow prisoners of war, though not him, were tortured by Castro thugs in Vietnam.

In Miami and elsewhere, McCain repeatedly emphasized his four-decades-old ties to the state.

As a Naval Academy graduate, McCain was stationed for a year in Pensacola for pilot training and, at one point, his plane went down in Pensacola Bay. His family lived in Jacksonville for several years while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Upon his release, he lived in Jacksonville, where he was a commanding officer of his squadron at Cecil Field.

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