MIAMI BEACH — As a Cuban who fled Fidel Castro's communist rule for a new life in the U.S., Julio Izquierdo would seem a natural Republican voter -- a sure bet to adopt the same political lineage that has long guided most of his countrymen who resettled in South Florida.
But moments after taking his oath this week to become a U.S. citizen and registering to vote, the grocery store employee said he felt no such allegiances.
"I don't know whether Bush is a Democrat or a Republican, but whatever he is, I'm voting the other way," Izquierdo, 20, said Thursday as he waited for a taxi after a mass naturalization ceremony at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Izquierdo said he did not like President Bush's handling of the Iraq war and was miffed at politicians, most of them Republican, who seem to dislike immigrants.
That sentiment, expressed by several of the 6,000 new citizens who took their oaths Thursday in group ceremonies that take place regularly in immigrant-heavy cities nationwide, underscored the troubled environment facing the GOP in the buildup to next year's presidential election.
Surveys show that among Latino voters -- a bloc Bush had hoped to woo into the Republican camp -- negative views about the party are growing amid a bitter debate over immigration policy.
Republicans in Congress have led the fight against a controversial Senate bill that would provide a pathway for millions of illegal immigrants to eventually become citizens. All but one of the GOP's leading White House hopefuls oppose the measure.
Many Latino leaders, including Republicans, have said the tone of some critics in attacking the bill has been culturally insensitive. They say that has alienated some Latinos from the GOP.
How this eventually plays out at the voting booth remains hard to predict, and that is especially the case concerning newly naturalized Latinos. Even if they register to vote, it is uncertain how many of these new citizens would actually turn out on election day.
And although 2006 election results showed a steep drop off in Latino support for Republicans, polls suggest that there is little, if any, growing enthusiasm for Democrats.
Still, at least on Thursday in Miami Beach, even the occasional new citizen who said he or she had registered as a Republican expressed concern about the tenor of the immigration debate.
Priscilla Girasol, 36, a mother from Brazil who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said she liked Bush because of his Christian faith and the compassion he expressed for the immigrant experience. But she said she could not forget the words of one GOP presidential candidate, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado.
Tancredo, a vocal critic of illegal immigration, late last year called Miami a "Third World country."
"It's a shame," Girasol said. "I'm sure in his life somebody from another country did something for him."
Another new citizen, Elieth Cifarelli, 39, from Costa Rica, could barely contain her excitement after registering to vote.
"I already know who my first vote will be for: Hillary Clinton," she said, referring to the Democratic senator from New York who is the party's front-runner for president in 2008.
Though naturalized citizens are a small fraction of the Latino vote, they have been a focus of voter registration efforts by various groups since last year's mass demonstrations in Los Angeles and other cities protesting legislation pushed by House Republicans that would have made illegal immigration a felony.
Univision, the Spanish-language cable network that is the fifth-most watched network in the U.S., is promoting a particularly aggressive drive to help immigrants gain citizenship and register to vote.
More than half a million immigrants were naturalized in 2004, the last year for which numbers are available, and federal officials estimate that nearly 8 million immigrants in the U.S. are eligible to obtain their citizenship.
As recently as the 2004 election, some political strategists and Latino voting experts viewed these numbers as promising for Republicans. Exit polls showed that Bush, in winning reelection that year, won about 40% of the Latino vote -- unusually high for a Republican.
For his and other GOP campaigns, naturalization ceremonies were a popular target, particularly in Florida. At one point, the GOP got in trouble for overly aggressive tactics outside a swearing-in ceremony in Jacksonville.
Naturalization ceremonies are nonpartisan. But for a moment Thursday, the Miami Beach event seemed like a GOP rally, with symbols reminiscent of the 2004 outreach effort.
There was Bush, in a videotaped message, extolling immigrants' values of "hard work, entrepreneurship, love of family and love of country." Then huge video screens showed patriotic images and pictures of national landmarks, and the audience stood, little American flags in hand, as immigration officials played a recording of that mainstay at GOP rallies, Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."
But outside, as the new citizens departed, dozens of canvassers from the local Democratic Party and left-leaning activist groups swarmed the sidewalks, clipboards in hand, offering help in filling out voter registration forms.
The local party chairman, Joe Garcia, sweat soaking through his blue guayabera shirt, walked up and down the sidewalk, exhorting the new citizens to register to vote.
Garcia, former director of a prominent Cuban American exile group, did not make a partisan pitch, but many in line recognized him from his frequent appearances on local Spanish-language television.
"Democrat! Democrat!" said one man, holding high the thumbs-up sign.