Just 90 miles from a state sponsor of terrorism. Awash in military spending. Teeming with Latin American exiles and pro-Israel voters.
Florida couldn’t be a more apt spot to talk foreign policy, the topic of the third and final presidential debate Monday night in Boca Raton.
Obama, who won the previous debate, according to a CNN poll, started losing Florida after he was walloped in the first one by Romney, a Miami Herald poll showed.
This debate is likely to dwell on Syria, Iran, Israel and the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, attack in Benghazi, Libya, that caught the Obama administration flatfooted and embarrassed officials who suggested early on that it wasn’t terrorism-related.
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But in Florida, which has 15 deepwater ports that benefit from Latin American trade, foreign policy is about all that and more:
Cuba : No issue dominates Florida politics like Cuba, owing to the strong ties between the Republican Party and the exile community. Miami-Dade, Florida’s largest county, is the only place in the nation where 72 percent of the GOP is Hispanic.
The U.S. government classifies Cuba as a state-terrorism sponsor along with Syria, Sudan and Iran. But Obama has loosened some Cuba travel and monetary-remittance policies, and Cuba recently relaxed some of its travel rules.
Free traders are hopeful, as are Florida Keys business leaders, who yearn to reestablish ties to a nation closer to Key West than Miami. But many conservative Cuban exiles are opposed.
Romney has called for getting tough on Cuba. His running mate, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, was once anti-embargo, but changed his position years ago.
Immigration : Cuban political clout has allowed the community to maintain special immigration privileges through the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which essentially gives a pathway to citizenship for any Cuban who lands on U.S. soil.
Other immigrants are critical of the special rights. The thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba could make the Cuban Adjustment Act tougher to justify.
Cuban clout has helped the broader Hispanic community as well. With a strong presence in the Florida Legislature, Cuban-American Republicans were essential to killing a proposed Arizona-style immigration crackdown in 2011 because of the sentiment that it could lead to anti-Hispanic profiling.
Cubans and Puerto Ricans — the second-largest Florida Hispanic group — are not directly affected by laws like the DREAM Act, which would grant a limited pathway to citizenship. So the immigration issue doesn’t play as well for Democrats in Florida as it does in other Hispanic-heavy swing states where Romney’s opposition to the DREAM Act could haunt him.
Venezuela : With the reelection of Fidel Castro’s protégé-strongman Hugo Chavez, the gradual exodus of wealthy, educated and conservative Venezuelans to Florida could intensify. About 47,000 Venezuelans live in Miami-Dade, particularly in Doral.
The ties between Chavez’s oil-rich autocracy and Iran became a political issue this summer when Obama said “what Mr. Chávez has done over the last several years has not had a serious national security impact on us.” Romney called the comment “disturbing.”
Democrats noted that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, said he was “grateful” in 2005 when Chavez gave the state low-cost heating oil. Conservatives have gleefully noted that Obama has had the de facto endorsements of both Chavez and Castro’s niece.
Israel : “Friends Don’t Let Friends Get Nuked . . . Stop Obama!” So says a billboard in Miami-Dade that shows a picture of Israel and a nuclear missile labeled “Iran.”
The message is part of the longstanding and so-far-unsuccessful effort to paint Obama as bad for Israel. It hasn’t worked so far, with most polls indicating Obama has about the same level of Jewish support as before.
Florida has roughly 640,000 Jews, who might account for about 6 percent of the Florida electorate (Hispanics are about 14 percent), experts say, and they overwhelmingly back Obama because they tend to be among the most-liberal of voters.
Romney has said Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus,” though Israel’s conservative leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, had said that “there is no bus.” Still, relations between Netanyahu and Obama are frosty.
Haiti : The chances that Haiti will be mentioned in the debate are slim, but it resembles a failed nation that could have a major impact on Florida, the state with the largest number of people of Haitian ancestry, at least 376,000.
The 2010 Haitian earthquake killed 150,000 to 300,000 people, and increased pressure on Haitians to emigrate to the United States.
Haitian politics surfaced in the August Democratic primary between U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson and Dr. Rudy Moise, a prominent Haitian philanthropist. Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, basically endorsed Moise. But Obama endorsed Wilson. Wilson prevailed.
Defense : Ever since the 1820s, when Key West was established as a key U.S. naval station, the defense industry has been crucial to Florida. Naval and Air Force bases ring the state from Jacksonville to Key West to Tampa to the Pensacola area.
One study estimated military spending accounted for $30 billion in Florida in 2010 — exceeding the state’s general-revenue tax collections by $7 billion that year. Military contractor Lockheed claims its F-35 fighter project will yield $1.6 billion in Florida economic impact and that cutting the project — widely bashed as wasteful and unneeded — will cost the state jobs.
Under a congressional deal reached with Obama, the defense industry nationwide is facing a nearly $500 billion cut over a decade, starting in January. Republicans like Florida Gov. Rick Scott are warning that it could cost states like Florida 39,000 jobs.
Romney, who has pledged to increase defense spending, has criticized the proposed defense cuts for weakening the nation. So has Ryan, even though the House Budget Committee chairman voted for the law that called for the cuts. Romney and Ryan have called for more defense spending, but won’t say how they would pay for it.
In drawing a direct line between defense spending and jobs, however, Republicans are also tacitly contradicting their message that government spending doesn’t create jobs. And in Florida — which receives a total of $96 billion annually from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security — federal spending clearly fuels the economy.
But that’s another debate for another time in Florida.