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Trump aims to upstage GOP debate with a rally targeting South Florida's Cuban community

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla.
Phelan M. Ebenhack
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Party of Florida Freedom Summit, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Kissimmee, Fla.

HIALEAH, Fla. — A City Council candidate in the Miami suburb of Hialeah used Donald Trump's image on campaign signs. At one polling station this week, many people wore red “Make America Great Again” hats or drove pickup trucks with flags bearing the former president's name.

Outside the venue where the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination will speak Wednesday, trying to upstage his rivals debating a half-hour's drive away, supporters were camped out more than a day in advance and waving at honking commuters passing by.

Hialeah is a critical part of South Florida’s hugely influential Cuban American community. It is all in for Trump.

“All we want is to get ahead in life. It seems a lot of politicians, all they do is set obstacles in our way,” said Marcel Perez, a Hialeah resident who went with his wife, mother, uncle and father-in-law to vote Tuesday. “Trump is the right person for the job because he opens the door for us.”

READ MORE: 5 candidates will face off in Miami. Here's how to watch the third GOP debate

Cuban voters in this region have helped deliver blowout victories for Trump and other Republicans in recent elections, helping drive Florida's realignment from a traditional swing state to one that's far more conservative. Democrats working toward President Joe Biden's reelection want to win back some of the Latino vote, and they held a news conference before the GOP debate and Trump's rally.

Trump's campaign is using his event to demonstrate his strength heading into 2024 and to hammer the message that the five candidates debating in Miami are irrelevant given his commanding lead in the polls. He will be endorsed at the event by Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who served as his White House press secretary.

Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump adviser, said the campaign would try to win an increasing percentage of the Hispanic vote in 2024. Trump did better among Hispanics in 2020 than he did in 2016, even as Biden captured a majority nationwide.

For Biden, LaCivita argued, what “was emerging as a problem” has now become “a full-blown crisis ... which gives President Trump, I think, an opportunity to really increase his standing and vote share in the Hispanic community."

Trump's campaign is planning primary ads on Hispanic TV and radio along with targeted mail. In a general election and likely rematch with Biden, Trump's advisers think his messages about the economy, the U.S.-Mexico border and cultural issues will resonate with Latinos.

“From the standpoint of the Trump campaign in the general election, we're going to aggressively pursue votes everywhere. We’re going to compete everywhere for votes," he said. “We’re extremely bullish on the fact that we have a receptive audience."

READ MORE: Five municipal elections across Miami-Dade. Who won? Who's headed to run-off?

Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Biden’s campaign manager, held a news conference Tuesday in downtown Miami to promote the reelection effort’s work with Latinos. The Biden campaign has run ads in English, Spanish and Spanglish, combining words of both languages the way many Hispanics do in the United States.

“Latinos continue to support Democrats overwhelmingly,” Chavez Rodriguez said. “That being said, we are not taking any of this for granted.”

More than 95% of Hialeah's 220,000 residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the most recent census numbers. Most are Cuban or Cuban American and speak Spanish at home.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last year became the first Republican in 20 years to win Miami-Dade County, which includes Hialeah, on his way to a blowout reelection victory.

Data from AP VoteCast, a sweeping survey of the national electorate, found that more than half of Latino voters in the state backed DeSantis for governor in 2022, and a similar number supported Republican incumbent Marco Rubio in that year’s Senate race. Each candidate's total was higher than the 45% of Latinos who supported Trump for president in 2020.

Voting with his family in Hialeah, Perez credited DeSantis for pushing against COVID-19 vaccine mandates and lockdowns, a stand that is a key part of the governor's presidential campaign pitch. But the 41-year-old suggested DeSantis had “sacado las uñas,” a Spanish expression that means someone has “taken out their fingernails,” or become overly aggressive.

Trump has long courted the Cuban community, which skews more Republican than other Hispanics. According to Pew, a majority of Cuban American voters, 58%, identified as Republican or Republican-leaning before the 2020 election.

In the White House, Trump worked to undo President Barack Obama’s Cuba engagement policy and he sanctioned socialist governments in Latin America. As he runs once more, Trump has ramped up his efforts to cast Democrats as Marxists, socialists and communists — language that may resonate with Cuban and Venezuelan exiles who fled poverty and political persecution.

After Trump appeared at a federal courthouse in Miami in June to plead not guilty to dozens of felony counts accusing him of hoarding classified documents and refusing government demands to give them back, he headed to Versailles, an iconic Cuban restaurant, coffee shop and bakery in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood that is a popular stop for politicians visiting Miami.

Trump was cheered on by waiting supporters and later serenaded with “Happy Birthday” one day before his 77th birthday, and was prayed over by a rabbi.

Kevin Marino Cabrera, a Miami-Dade County commissioner who will speak at Wednesday's rally, said Trump “is taking his message directly to the voters while the other candidates are debating in a room full of campaign staff and media for a possible VP nomination or a job in a Trump administration.”

Unlike a debate crowd with loyalties split among candidates, Trump is expected to draw a boisterous audience that uniformly supports him.

“It’s not a polite crowd. It’s vociferous and festive,” said Dario Moreno, a political science professor at Florida International University. “He’s going to outshine those guys at the debate.”

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