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    Latino vote crucial for Republican rivals in Fla.

    Focus is on jobs, not immigration

    MIAMI - Mitt Romney has aggressively established a network of surrogates within Florida’s surging Latino population, a tacit acknowledgment of the bitter lessons from his loss here in 2008 and the pivotal role the community is expected to play in the GOP’s first large-state primary later this month.

    Romney is counting on the strategy to soften the potential blowback over his tough prescriptions against illegal immigration. He, like his GOP presidential rivals, is also counting on the immigration rhetoric being overshadowed by the dominant driving issue in Hispanic communities: the need for more jobs.

    “As long as they focus on the economy and the solutions for improving the economy, they will attract a lot of votes, not only Latino votes,’’ said Bettina Inclan, who was raised in Miami’s Little Havana and was appointed earlier this week as the Republican National Committee’s director for Hispanic outreach.

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    Florida, which holds its vote Jan. 31, is shaping up to be a broad battleground featuring an array of diverse interests. The Sunshine State has 50 delegates up for grabs, more than Iowa and New Hampshire combined and twice as many as South Carolina.

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    Unlike those states, Florida politics is keenly influenced by the state’s burgeoning Hispanic communities.

    “As the Hispanic vote goes, Florida will go. And as the Florida vote goes, the country will go,’’ said Alci Maldonado, who chairs the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

    In the 2008 general election, Latinos voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama, but they backed George W. Bush in 2004, making them a crucial swing vote in a key swing state.

    Their influence has grown. Of the 11.2 million Floridians registered to vote in fall 2010, 1.4 million identified themselves as of Hispanic descent - nearly 346,000 more than four years before, according to the state’s elections office. Although Democrats have registered more Hispanics than Republicans have - 550,799 to 445,353 - analysts say Hispanics who align themselves with the GOP, particularly Cuban Americans, are more likely to vote.

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    It would be a mistake for candidates to come through Florida thinking they can win without the support of such a sizable voting bloc, Inclan said.

    When Republicans gather in Tampa for their national convention, few, if any, will venture into Richard Avila’s neighborhood west of the city’s gleaming towers. They would see a thoroughfare of supermercados, florists, tire shops, and boarded-up storefronts that once pulsed with life. Avila, a barber, lamented his neighborhood’s woes.

    “I used to have customers coming in for a haircut every six weeks. Now they wait three months, some six months, before they come back,’’ said Avila, a 60-year old Cuban American. “I don’t know if anybody can change this country, turn the country around.’’

    Avila, a lifelong Democrat, said he is considering changing his party affiliation, a soul-searching decision. If he votes Republican, Avila would pick Newt Gingrich for his experience in government.

    At Miami’s Maximo Gomez Park on a recent morning, the atmosphere was boisterous, as dominoes swirled atop tables. Cuban Americans, many of them exiles, account for 70 percent of the Republicans registered in the Miami-Dade area. The conversation among the silver-haired crowd turned to politics.

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    “I support Mitt Romney,’’ Maria Rodriguez announced. “I think he’s the only one right now you can trust to win.’’

    Obama? “He’s done nothing,’’ said Rodriquez, 72, a retiree from the banking industry.

    Her friend, Ana Santiago, 80, agreed. The women said Romney’s probusiness policies have the best chance of creating jobs.

    The state has among the country’s highest unemployment rates, at 10 percent in November. In 2010, the latest year available, Hispanic unemployment was at 13.6 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

    Political analysts say the Latino community itself is diversifying. While Cuban Americans still make up the largest bloc, the number of Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Mexico and Central America is ballooning.

    “The stereotype of the Hispanic vote, that it’s only Cuban American, has evaporated,’’ said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at Tampa’s University of South Florida.

    Nationally, Republicans face an uphill battle in attracting Hispanic support. A poll by the Pew Hispanic Center last month suggested Latinos still back Obama by wide margins - beating both Romney and Gingrich by as much as 23 percentage points in head-to-head contests.

    Yet Republicans are betting that Florida’s unique mix of Latinos will turn their way. One key reason is that illegal immigration is not considered an important issue to Cuban Americans, given their special immigration status, or Puerto Ricans, who are already US citizens.

    To tilt Florida into the red column, there is talk of recruiting Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban American from Miami and a Tea Party favorite, as a vice presidential running mate. Rubio has not made any endorsements or said he would accept such a position.

    It remains to be seen how serious of a challenge Romney’s rivals can mount in Florida. Governor Rick Perry of Texas might have the resources, but his campaign might not survive beyond South Carolina.

    Newt Gingrich, who can speak for himself on Spanish television, crested in Florida polls last month, but that wave has come crashing down.

    To reach the masses, Romney is spending at least $825,000 to blitz the state with TV spots.

    And an official at the super PAC “Restore Our Future’’ confirmed yesterday it plans to buy $3.4 million in ads to support Romney, who cannot coordinate with the group.

    Romney has been especially aggressive in courting the Latino vote. In August, he was one of only two GOP candidates to join Hispanic Republicans in Tampa for their annual meeting. The other, Herman Cain, has suspended his campaign.

    In November, Romney returned to collect endorsements, bringing his Spanish-speaking youngest son, Craig, to connect with his Latino audience. Last month, he appointed a liaison to Florida’s Latinos. Yesterday, he held a fund-raiser in Miami. And he began this week airing television spots, narrated by his son, on Spanish-language stations. And this time around, he’s fared better at securing support from Florida’s prominent Latinos.

    Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban immigrant who backed the eventual Florida winner John McCain four years ago, has endorsed Romney, even though she does not agree with him on immigration issues.

    Romney has called for a crackdown on illegal immigration and derisively tags most plans for eventual citizenship as “amnesty.’’ He supports a “high-tech border fence,’’ a computerized employment verification system, and fines for employers hiring immigrants whose legal status cannot be verified. He said last month he would veto the Dream Act, which would allow children in the country illegally to become citizens if they went to college or served in the military.

    Other candidates have shown more flexibility. Gingrich has suggested that longtime law-abiding immigrants who entered the country illegally be given some kind of ability to establish residency.

    “Talking about immigration in a constructive manner is not a bad thing,’’ said Inclan. Still, she cautioned, voters here and in other battleground states have one paramount concern.

    “It’s about the economy,’’ she said, “and how families are going to survive.’’

    Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com.