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Cracks seen in Fla. GOP stronghold

But Kerry viewed as an uncertainty

MIAMI -- In 2000, Omar Lopez Montenegro was angry at the Clinton administration for sending 6-year-old Elian Gonzalez back to Cuba. And he was impressed with Republican tough talk on the regime of Fidel Castro. So, like 80 percent of the Cuban-Americans here, he voted for George W. Bush.

Since then, Bush has disappointed Montenegro. For more than three years, the administration did almost nothing to crack down on Castro, he said. Then, this summer, Bush announced new rules on trips and transfers of money to Cuba, drastically reducing the amount of money Montenegro is allowed to send to his family each quarter. The policy attacks his dying mother, not Castro, Montenegro believes.

Bush will not be getting his vote this time, he said.

"To me, it is not a political matter to send money to my family in Cuba," said Montenegro, executive director for human rights at the Cuban American National Foundation and a former political prisoner under Castro's regime. "To me, it's a matter of family values. I don't see how this is going to bring Castro down."

Montenegro represents an opportunity for John F. Kerry, Bush's Democratic challenger. If more Cuban-Americans like Montenegro can be persuaded to vote against Bush, it could be the edge Kerry needs to move the state into the Democratic column.

But Kerry has a problem.

"At this moment, I would like to see a comprehensive or concrete policy about Cuba from John Kerry. He doesn't say anything about Cuba," Montenegro said. "If Kerry doesn't convince me, well, it's too early to say, but I think I won't vote for anybody."

Although most of the Cuban-Americans who proved vital to Bush in the 537-vote Florida squeaker of 2000 will be there for him again this year, Democrats see openings -- among those dissatisfied with Bush's Cuba policy, among younger and more recent immigrants, and among first- and second-generation Cuban-Americans who will make their decisions on issues other than Cuba policy. Some high-profile Cuban-American activists have aligned themselves with their cause.

But Kerry has work to do in Florida. Montenegro and other prominent Cuban-Americans who have broken with Bush have expressed frustration that Kerry has not yet sold himself to the community here.

Cuban-Americans, unlike other Hispanic voters, who tend to be Democrats, have long been loyal to the Republican Party. In 1996, Clinton won only 38 percent of Cuban-American votes in Florida. But in 2000, with the Elian controversy still fresh, Vice President Al Gore won just 17 percent of their votes. This time, Democrats think they can increase Kerry's share to about 25 percent.

"In the last election, if one-half of 1 percent of Cuban-Americans would have stayed home, just stayed home, we'd be talking about Gore's reelection right now," said Joe Garcia, the former executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation, who recently stepped down to work for the New Democrat Network, which is making the case for Kerry among Hispanic voters. "A good 20 percent disagree with the president [on the new travel restrictions], but the problem is, right now they don't have an alternative. The Democrats have to stand up and be counted."

The fact that Garcia, a well-known figure in the community, has joined the Democratic cause has sent a clear signal that Florida's Cuban-American community -- or at least a small segment of it -- might be changing.

But much of the community will not be moved by the senator from Massachusetts. Francisco Verdicia, one of dozens of elderly men in Little Havana's Domino Park yesterday, did not need time to think about what Kerry could do to win his vote in November.

"Nada," said the chain-smoking 78-year-old, a political prisoner for 16 years in Castro's Cuba. "Nada."

Verdicia voted for Bush in 2000, and he will vote for him again, he said. Bush loyalists were in plentiful supply up and down Calle Ocho, the neighborhood's main artery -- in Domino Park, where gruff Cuban men clack down dominoes as they are watched over by a whistle-wielding, septuagenarian security guard, and at Versailles, a landmark restaurant where locals go for shots of sweet Cuban coffee.

"It would be the ultimate disgrace if Kerry were to win," said Verdicia, speaking through a translator. For him, no issue trumps Cuba, and he said Kerry has been too sympathetic to communists in the past: He came back from Vietnam and opposed the war against the communists, Verdicia said. Then, in the 1980s, Kerry met with Nicaraguan Sandinista Daniel Ortega, a Marxist, and criticized the anti-communist contras.

"The Republican Party has always been more supportive of the Cuban-American community," said Rene Herrera, 71, another Cuban exile.

Voters like Verdicia and Herrera welcomed Bush's new rules, which limited the number of visits Cuban-Americans can make to relatives from one a year to one every three years and reduced the amount of money they could send to relatives to $300 per quarter, further restricting the transfers to immediate family members.

Garcia and other Cuban-Americans who dislike Bush are frustrated at what they see as Kerry's failure to show Cuban-Americans that he can offer them more than Bush can.

"He's got to come to Miami and look Cuban-Americans in the eye and say, 'Look, this is what I think,' " Garcia said. "I dislike Bush on his policy, but on his rhetoric, he's 100 percent."

According to his campaign, Kerry supports the embargo and wants the peaceful overthrow of Castro but opposes the new rules put in place by the Bush administration. Despite making 13 visits to the state since he wrapped up the nomination in March, Kerry has not made that case personally in South Florida recently, partly because of the hurricanes that have lashed the peninsula and partly because his message has been obscured by battles over other issues with Bush.

Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is fluent in Spanish, are expected back in the Sunshine State soon. And his campaign has opened an office in Little Havana, directly across the street from Versailles.

"In the past, Democratic candidates have written off the Cuban-American vote, and we're not doing that," said Kerry's Florida spokesman, Matthew Miller. "We're running a full-scale campaign dedicated to mobilizing Cuban-American voters."

But Bush spokesman Reed Dickens said Democrats will make no dent in their support among Cuban-Americans.

In addition to convincing more Cuban-Americans of his commitments to their causes, Kerry also must counter the effects of the candidacy of Mel Martinez, the former federal Housing and Urban Development secretary and Republican nominee for Senate, who, if elected, would become the first-ever Cuban-American US senator, a fact likely to bring Cuban-Americans and other Hispanic voters to the polls.

"The Republicans might not have Elian to get them out to vote against the Democrats, but now they've got something to vote for, which is Mel Martinez," Garcia said.

Martinez, who is from Orlando, in the Interstate 4 corridor swing region, garnered more than 102,000 votes in heavily Cuban Miami-Dade County in the Republican primary, more than Democrat Betty Castor and her closest competitor combined.

"The president and me, we can kind of help each other," Martinez said in an interview with the Globe.

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