Edwards Courts Cuban-American Vote

Vice presidential nominee John Edwards (search) courted a traditionally Republican constituency on Monday, telling Cuban-Americans that Democrats in the White House would pressure Fidel Castro (search) and "promote freedom not just in the world but also in this hemisphere."

Embarking on his post-convention solo campaign after days with running mate John Kerry (search), Edwards focused on the state that decided the 2000 election and offers a hefty 27 electoral votes in this year's contest.

"I can tell you, John Kerry will keep the pressure on Castro and support those in the fight for freedom," Edwards said at a rally of about 300 supporters at the James L. Knight Center, the first of three stops in Florida.

Some Cuban-Americans have raised concern about the Bush administration's recent restrictions on travel to Cuba, which prevent Cuban-Americans from visiting family members more than once every three years instead of annually.

Others have questioned the current "wet-foot, dry-foot" immigration policy, under which Cubans intercepted at sea are typically returned while those who reach land are usually allowed to stay.

Cuban-Americans supported George W. Bush over Al Gore by about 4-to-1 in 2000, but Democrats have expressed optimism that they can draw more support in the community through their focus on foreign policy and pocketbook issues such as the economy and health care.

Former President Clinton received nearly 40 percent of the Cuban-American vote in 1996.

"I think there's a tremendous opportunity in the Cuban-American community for the Kerry-Edwards ticket but the key to it is them coming down here and talking directly to Cuban-Americans," said Miami political consultant Fred Balsera, who was among those who met Edwards.

State Republican Party spokesman Joseph Agostini said Kerry and Edwards "have missed the boat on Cuba," saying the president has worked toward a transition to democracy characterized "by free, fair and transparent systems of elections and democracy."

Florida's 2.7 million Hispanics are considered a swing voting group in a state where the 2000 presidential race was decided by 537 votes after a recount.

The president and his brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, have long-established ties with the state's community of more than 600,000 Cuban-Americans. The governor won the majority of Hispanic voters in his successful 2002 re-election campaign.

Later, in Jacksonville, Edwards spoke to about 400 people at a convention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights group that was co-founded by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In the speech, Edwards pointed to a poster of King and invoked the image of Florida's voting troubles in the 2000 presidential election.

"Opportunity and an equal chance to go to your local voting booth and not be deterred, denied and deprived of your right to raise your voice to lift the cause of our country. Dr. King fought and died for that," Edwards admonished.

In largely Democratic Duval County, 27,000 presidential ballots were tossed four years ago because voters incorrectly chose more than one presidential candidate on poorly designed punch-card ballots, or selected none.