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CAMPAIGN 2000

Lieberman's Popularity Grows in Fla.

Politics: Aside from his support in the Jewish community, the Democrat is winning praise from Cuban Americans.

November 02, 2000|MATEA GOLD and DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Joseph I. Lieberman, the Yiddish-speaking vice presidential candidate, is a major hit in this swampy state's large Jewish community--an unsurprising fact campaign officials have been milking ever since Al Gore tapped him as his running mate.

But Democrat Lieberman also has been warmly received by an unexpected constituency--the traditionally Republican Cuban American exile community.

Whether Lieberman can actually deliver many Cuban American votes remains to be seen. But the observant Jew has proved to be the Democrats' most vital asset in their attempt to win Florida's tightly contested 25 electoral votes and stymie Republican George W. Bush's presidential bid. Although his brother Jeb is the governor of the Sunshine State, Bush is running about even with Gore in the state, according to recent polls.

"Lieberman has been key to this whole thing in Florida," said Bob Poe, chairman of the Florida Democratic Party.

The senator from Connecticut has visited Florida about once a week since the Democratic convention--more than any other state. On Wednesday, Lieberman packed in eight campaign stops in Florida before heading to Little Rock, Ark., for yet another rally, and he plans to return to Miami this weekend.

During a visit to Miami last week, Lieberman met with about 75 Cuban American leaders, trumpeting his friendship with the late Jorge Mas Canosa, a construction magnate who headed the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, the most powerful Cuban American lobbying group in the nation.

In extensive comments to the group, Lieberman spoke vehemently about his support for the embargo against Cuba and invoked Mas Canosa's memory as an inspiration during the final weeks of the campaign.

"As long as the good Lord gives me breath and capacity, I will continue to say when it comes Cuba, 'Cuba Libre,' " said Lieberman, after visiting Mas Canosa's grave with his family.

Lieberman Praised for Backing of Exiles

While Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Santos, is a major Bush donor, Cuban American leaders acknowledge that Lieberman's friendship with his father--which dates back to his first Senate bid in 1988--and his longtime support for the Cuban exile movement has won him backing in the community.

"Lieberman has been there for the Cuban community for a long time, just like Bush has been there," said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Eusebio Mujal-Leon, an expert on Cuban American politics at Georgetown University, said Lieberman's consistent denouncing of Cuban leader Fidel Castro could give him an edge with conservatives in this key state. Registered Cuban American voters number about 450,000 in Florida, about 6% of the electorate.

With "a good chunk of the Cuban vote, the Democrats could take Florida," Mujal-Leon said.

Meanwhile, in the predominantly Jewish retirement communities in South Florida, Lieberman's regular presence provokes a reaction usually reserved for rock stars. Residents scream at his arrival, clutch at his clothes and plant kisses on his cheeks.

Jews, like the Cuban Americans, represent about 6% of Florida voters. About a quarter of the state's population is aged 65 or older, one of the highest proportions of seniors in the nation, and seniors typically have the highest turnout in elections, making up a third of the nationwide vote in 1998.

On Wednesday, Lieberman appealed to these voters as he rolled along the palm tree-lined streets of South Florida in a flag-festooned recreational vehicle, jumping out to have breakfast with firefighters, shake hands with excited shoppers in a popular Boca Raton mall and rally about 4,000 cheering supporters at Florida Atlantic University.

In the afternoon, Lieberman knocked on doors and looked for voters at the Century Village East in Deerfield Beach, home to about 17,000 seniors. He didn't have to look very far. Longtime Democratic community activist Amadeo Trinchitella promised that 95% of residents would vote for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

He called the Connecticut senator "our favorite son" as he introduced Lieberman to about 700 seniors gathered in the auditorium.

Cheney, Schwarzkopf Campaign in Florida

"One of the things that excites us very much is that he's Jewish," said Anne Klein, an 80-something resident who has volunteered to drive carloads of seniors to the polls next week. "I'm just thrilled to pieces he's here."

Lieberman ended his tour of the state Wednesday with a an seaside rally in Daytona Beach, where teenagers lined up behind him with surfboards that spelled out "L-I-E-B-E-R-M-A-N-I-A."

Meanwhile, Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney also campaigned in Florida on Wednesday, joined by Jeb Bush and Persian Gulf War icon H. Norman Schwarzkopf, who railed against Gore's use of "scary" campaign messages about Social Security.

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