Mitt Romney picks up key endorsements in Florida

Mitt Romney will pick up the ultimate Cuban-American endorsement trifecta Tuesday in South Florida: The support of U.S. Reps. Ileana Ros Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and his brother, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

The endorsements of the Miami Cuban-American leaders is a leading indicator that Romney is making a big push in Florida for one of its most crucial voting blocs in the state's Republican primary, scheduled for Jan. 31.

“It’s a major boost for any candidate when the three of them get together and move in one direction,” said Carlos Curbelo, a Miami-Dade School Board member who has worked for the Diaz-Balart brothers but has endorsed Romney rival Rick Perry.

“They represent this community,” he said. “In Miami-Dade, their support is crucial.”

Romney learned that the hard way in 2008 when the three representatives joined another Cuban-American leader, then-Sen. Mel Martinez, and endorsed John McCain.

McCain effectively ended Romney’s candidacy by winning Florida’s GOP primary with a margin of 97,000 votes. McCain’s Miami-Dade margin: 52,000.

Miami-Dade is Florida’s largest and most-Hispanic county. Hispanic voters, nearly all of whom are of Cuban descent, account for 72 percent of the roughly 368,000 registered Republicans in the county.

Exit polls showed McCain took 51 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2008 primary, while Romney only garnered 15 percent support in Florida, the nation's largest swing state.

Romney, a frontrunner this year, was bashed Monday by the Democratic National Committee, which released two “Mitt vs. Mitt” web ads that criticized the candidate for flip-flopping on gay rights, abortion and even immigration.

The Romney campaign responded with campaign surrogates, including Martinez, who defended Romney's harder shift on immigration this campaign season.

Romney once shared Martinez’s views on immigration, when the former Senator backed a doomed reform proposal. Later, in 2008, Martinez criticized Romney for not offering solutions, only criticisms.

But on Monday, Martinez said he was backing Romney because he is the candidate with the best record and the best chance of beating President Barack Obama.

“I understand Mitt Romney to be a fair-minded, decent person,” Martinez said. “I'm not concerned about what may be some difference in nuances.”

Representative Diaz-Balart said in a written statement that he's backing Romney because “we need a president who won’t apologize for America, but will work to secure free markets, economic opportunity, and human rights for all people around the world. Mitt Romney is that leader who will make America stronger and more respected in the world.”

The Tuesday morning endorsements of Ros Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. in Medley at Conchita Foods, a family-owned company that sells Cuban cuisine like guava paste and canned black beans.

Often, candidates sip a cafecito at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana when they do Cuban-American outreach, but Romney’s campaign instead chose Conchita, which was founded in Cuba and moved to the United States after Fidel Castro took over in 1959.

Charlie Ferro, a co-owner of Conchita, said the endorsements of the three Cuban-American leaders “is a big deal. Cubans look to their leaders to a certain extent for guidance.”

Ferro said he liked Romney because the former Massachusetts governor is also a turn-around artist who can best improve the economy. Asked if he had one wish for the next president to fulfill, Ferro didn’t talk about tax cuts or eliminating president Obama’s healthcare plan. Ferro said he just wanted the economy to improve because he’s seeing five to six people daily looking for work.

“These are people with executive level experience and they’re willing to mop floors to put food on the table for their families,” Ferro said. “That’s a heavy, heavy thing.”

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