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NBC Miami's Willard Shepard reports on the Republican primary candidates' different stances on immigration.
Candidates searching for ways to resonate with Florida voters ahead of next Tuesday’s Republican primary have to look no further than their pocketbooks and unemployment rates to snare their party’s collective attention.
That’s what Republican leaders throughout the Florida are saying as candidates flock to the Sunshine State looking to win the most important primary to date.
“The economy and jobs creation will continue to be discussed,” said Leonard Curry, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. “Gov. Rick Scott got elected talking about jobs and it’s still all about jobs. That’s what Floridians care about all over the state.”
Curry says Republicans were collectively booted out of office in 2008 in large part because of their monetary spending policies. Afterward, they learned their lesson, he said.
“We got it. We heard the public loud and clear and had to get things right on fiscal policy,” he said.
The chairman of the state party says the Republican voters have specific ideas about how the economy can be bolstered that contrast starkly with the current administration.
"When the president talks about job creation he mentions government stimulus and government job creation. We don’t believe that’s sustainable, ” Curry says.
Florida Republicans, he argues, will be focusing on how candidates communicate their belief in a free market and how Washington should stop directing what is produced or consumed.
Though Curry acknowledges that other issues like Medicare and Social Security are important for Florida voters, he said they are secondary to the economy.
But others are not so sure.
Victoria Funes, associate director of the American Association of Retired Persons in South Florida, said the large percentage of older voters in the state put emphasis on traditional senior issues.
“We know that Social Security and Medicare are very important to Florida Republicans,” said Funes. “They oppose any kind of cuts.”
She pointed to a survey conducted by the AARP in November that showed that likely Republican voters oppose cutting the entitlement programs by more than two to one.
In South Florida, among Hispanic Republican voters, Funes said the discrepancy was even more pronounced with the margin opposing cuts at closer to four to one.
“There seems to be a disconnect with what Washington is saying and what our voters want,” she said. “Even voters who favor or are linked to the Tea Party are opposed to cuts in Medicare or Social Security.”
While a preference to keep such programs safe was paramount for the state’s seniors, Funes acknowledged that job creation and security was increasingly important for older populations.
“We can no longer assume (seniors) are retired or on their way to retirement. With 401K’s tanking and unemployment what it is, jobs are as important an issue to (seniors) as the rest of the population,” Funes said.
Sid Dinerstein, chairman of the Republican Party in Palm Beach County, said voters will be looking for a candidate with the greatest leadership abilities rather than a particular stance.
“Throughout the history of western civilization the greater the problems faced the stronger the leader, needed,” he said. “The candidate that can project themselves as a strong leader that can begin the long road out of this mess is probably going to take Florida.”
Dinerstein said that Republicans in Palm Beach have been ahead of trends for the party as they chose Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich as frontrunners in a straw poll more than a month ago, long before the two became favorites to take the Florida primary.
Bradley Gerber, president of the Miami Young Republicans, agrees that leadership will be important to young voters who are looking to see candidates fine tune their messages. Gerber said the combative nature of the debates between Republicans has piqued the public’s interest.
“People have to get educated. This is the kind of discussion that needs to be had. Unlike Democrats we look through our candidates to see what they stand for,” Gerber said.
As for what issues would be foremost on voters’ minds, Gerber also pointed to the economy but specified that Florida voters wanted government to take a hands-off approach to business.
“The number one thing is that we need to get rid of some of these really burdensome and harmful regulations that Obama has put in,” Gerber said. “We have to get the private sector back in business.”
Other issues sure to resonate with Florida Republicans, especially in South Florida, concern candidates’ stances on immigration.
“Immigration weighs heavily with South Floridians,” said Manny Garcia, Jr., president of the Hialeah-Miami-Lakes Republican Club. “They really want to see that candidates have a fair stance on legal immigration. Not something radical,” he said, pointing to laws passed in Arizona.
But even Garcia acknowledged that the economy was an issue that transcended any demographic group.
“Whether you are Hispanic, white or anything else, the number one issue is the downward turn of the economy,” he said.
What most Republicans can agree upon in Florida is the vital role the state will play in not only selecting a Republican nominee but what the outcome will be in the general election in November.
Gerber said that winning Florida will be crucial to determining the future direction of the country.
“It’s great to see Florida be so important. We ought to be important. We are the fourth largest state in the country, and the largest one up for grabs,” he said.
Curry agreed saying that despite past leanings, voters in the state were the most likely in the country to listen to a candidate and make a decision based on his arguments.
“We have more swing voters than anywhere,” Curry said.