In Miami's Little Havana, Giuliani makes his stand

On the eve of Tuesday's primary in Florida, the one-time national GOP front-runner is still running strong among Cuban-Americans, who represent 10 to 12 percent of the state's GOP electorate.

gerald herbert/ap
Campaigning: GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani at a rally in Miami Friday.

Paying homage to Miami's Cuban-Americans – and knocking back Cuban coffee at Café Versailles in the heart of the city's Little Havana neighborhood – is a staple of any political campaign in south Florida.

But for Rudolph Giuliani, the one-time national front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, Cuban-Americans represent his last redoubt. As his support fades among the rest of the GOP electorate in Florida on the eve of Tuesday's primary, the former New York mayor is still the toast of Little Havana.

In an appearance Friday at a neighborhood senior center, Mr. Giuliani basked in the adoration of older Cuban-Americans, who called out "Rudy, Rudy!" as the former mayor praised their love of freedom in the face of a "vicious, murderous, communist dictatorship."

"You brought with you what's inside your soul, and no tyrant, no dictator, no bully can take that away from you," Giuliani said, standing amid the Cuban-American senior citizens who had entertained the crowd with dancing before his arrival. "The Cuban-American story shows that freedom prevails over oppression."

Cuban-Americans represent 10 to 12 percent of the GOP electorate in Florida, and "that's the one group he [Giuliani] is still carrying," says Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling.

Giuliani leads among Florida's Hispanic Republicans (who are overwhelmingly Cuban and overwhelmingly located in Miami-Dade County) with 52 percent of the vote, but is trailing overall in Florida with just 18 percent of GOP primary voters, according to the latest Mason-Dixon poll.

Giuliani's Florida hopes were dealt another blow over the weekend when the state's leading Cuban-American politician, Sen. Mel Martinez (R) endorsed Sen. John McCain of Arizona for president (as did Gov. Charlie Crist). Senator McCain is neck and neck with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in Florida.

On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Romney was to appear at the Jorge Mas Canosa Center in Miami, named for the late Cuban exile leader. On Friday, the top four GOP presidential candidates addressed the powerful Latin Builders Association in Miami.

But for many of the 200 elderly Cuban-Americans gathered last Friday at the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center, Giuliani was already their choice.

"I like a strong man. I think he is a strong man," said Adolfo Rodriguez of Miami, formerly of New York City. "I'm Cuban and I would like to see him do something about Cuba." He said his second choice was McCain.

Some of those interviewed knew only enough English to indicate they preferred "Rudy" but not much more. As Giuliani addressed the crowd, Spanish translation was provided – he did not mention a point he often makes in other parts of the state: that immigrants should be required to learn English. He also vowed to protect the special immigration status that Cubans enjoy, at a time when illegal immigration is an especially fraught campaign issue.

Instead, he applauded the impact Cuban immigration has had on the United States: "You have made us better. You have made America better."

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