Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney addresses a news conference… (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Miami — Despite polls showing Mitt Romney with a strong hold on Florida’s Latino voters, many Cuban Americans voting in Little Havana on Tuesday said that doubts about Romney motivated them to support Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and even Ron Paul.
“I’m afraid of someone pretending to be a conservative when they’re not,” said Priscilla Cancio, who voted with her husband at a polling station in a gym at a park named after 19th century Cuban poet Jose Marti.
Cancio and her husband both voted for Santorum, saying that family values were among the most important issues for them.
“He means what he says, he has done what he said he’s done, and he hasn’t changed his mind about anything,” said Jose Cancio, who is a pastor.
An ABC/Univision poll shows that Romney leads Gingrich by 26 percentage points among likely Latino Republican voters. About 11% of the state’s registered Republicans are Latino.
The Jose Marti Park polling station, located under a freeway along the Miami River, serves primarily Cuban voters, a bloc both Gingrich and Romney tried vigorously to recruit with speeches in Miami and ads on Spanish radio and television. As voters wandered in and out, a group of schoolchildren dressed in green and white uniforms played in the parking lot, and yachts glided on the river while cars zoomed past overhead.
Diana Decesbes, running into the polling station on her lunch break, said she was looking for someone who could fix the economy. The 50-year-old IT software developer has been employed only sporadically during the recession and recovery.
“I don’t like Romney,” she said. But, like many other Cuban Americans who voted at the polling station, said she liked President Obama even less.
Some voters said they’d seen dozens of ads for Romney and Gingrich, although they claimed the ads didn’t sway their vote one way or another.
“They can say bad things about him and I’ll still vote for him,” said Fran Pupo, a retired mechanic from Cuba, about his choice for president: Newt Gingrich.
At Versailles Restaurant, a few miles down Calle Ocho in Little Havana, voters were similarly divided.
One man sat in a corner, speaking in Spanish on a cellphone, with a "Newt" sticker on his hat and an "I Voted" sticker on his lapel.
Outside, where men sipped coffee from tiny cups, Carlos Salgueiro and Joe Guerra said they both voted for Paul.
“His economy plan is awesome,” said Salgueiro, 48. “He’s the only one who’s been fairly honest.”
Nelson A. Perez, who emigrated from Cuba in 1958, said he voted for Romney. Though Gingrich is “no doubt intelligent,” he said, “he has more baggage than American Airlines.” Perez was looking for a candidate who could jump-start the economy and ensure that his grandchildren would have the same opportunities he had.
“I want to bring back the old USA, and I think Romney can do it,” he said.
His lunch companion, Jose Luis Rodriguez, snorted. Rodriguez is an anomaly in the Cuban community – a Democrat who supports Obama. He said that a Romney victory could have disastrous results for the general election because of Romney’s hard-line stance on immigration.
Romney has said that in his administration, illegal immigrants would “self-deport” because there would be no economic opportunities for them. Gingrich has said he would allow some illegal immigrants to stay, as long as they have been here for more than two decades and have ties to the community.
“Romney really hurt himself with immigration. He didn’t need to go that far right,” Rodriguez said. “At least Gingrich has some compassion.”