Lynn University, in Boca Raton, Florida, is the site of the third and last presidential debate, to be held tonight. (Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images))

In Florida, Latinos in both campaigns prepare for final, high-stakes debate

BOCA RATON, Fla.- In politics lately, it seems like it always boils down to Florida.

That is certainly the case tonight, as President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney duke it out in their final debate, this one focused on foreign policy, here at Lynn University in Boca Raton.  From a Latino perspective, the debate is interesting on two fronts — how the candidates make their last pitches on specific issues of relevance to Hispanic voters, and the fact it takes place in Florida, a battleground state whose Hispanic voters are among the most courted and scrutinized, and who could very well play a key role in who becomes the next president.

Latinos in both parties were confident their candidates would have the upper hand in the hour and a half debate tonight, focusing on foreign policy. Hispanic Republicans say Mitt Romney will make the case that he is more forceful against certain regimes.

“Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon under President Obama, and I think Iran has an embassy in almost every country in Latin America,” says  Florida Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “On Cuba, all Obama has done is more flights and more concessions for the Castro regime,” says the Cuban-American congresswoman.  Ros-Lehtinen also says Romney’s support of the Keystone pipeline “will make us less dependent on Hugo Chavez and his regime.”

Latino Democrats say President Obama has a solid track record on foreign policy, and can be more trusted as Commander-in-Chief, says Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez.   “The President made a promise to find and hold accountable those responsible for the attack on our shores and the loss of 3,000 lives on September 11th, and now Osama Bin Laden is dead,” he says. “The President made a promise — to end the war in Iraq, and bring our sons and daughters home, and he kept his promise,” says Menendez, adding, “we cannot afford four years of adventurism abroad that brought us the war in Iraq.”

Some Latin America analysts say mainstream American foreign policy discussions does not tend to traditionally focus on Latin America, though apart from Cuba and Venezuela, the drug wars in Mexico, as well as trade issues in the region could be part of the debate.  The topic of immigration was one of the contentious topics discussed in the previous debate, and Latino analysts expect it to be discussed tonight.  For Latinos in the armed services and their families, the debate is a chance to see the differences in the candidates’ view of the military; Obama wants to cut military spending and make the military leaner, Romney is against the reductions.

RELATED: Debate did not touch on immigration, Latin America

And as the candidates discuss issues of trade, immigration, war and foreign policy, both campaigns will be looking at how their candidates resonate with the Sunshine State’s diverse Latinos.

“In terms of the Hispanic vote, Florida is a robust, pluralistic Latino community and it’s like a little country unto itself which produces right/left dynamics,” says Jose Gabilondo, a professor of law at Florida International University. “We have a critical mass of Cubans, Puerto Ricans, South and Central Americans; it’s a much more cosmopolitan Latino environment,” Gabilondo adds.

Florida was recently called ‘the mother of all battleground states’ by NBC Latino contributor and political scientist Victoria DeFrancesco Soto. Two Latino areas in the state are a big focus for both campaigns — the Miami/South Florida area and the Orlando/I-4 corridor in central Florida.

In Miami this past weekend, George P. Bush, son of former Florida governor Jeb Bush, whose mother is Mexican, did a precinct walk with groups of volunteers and visited a Romney campaign calling center.  The grandson of the first President Bush, as well as one of the founders of Hispanic Republicans of Texas, says Romney’s message will appeal to Latinos “because whether they’re Cuban or Mexican, the top issue is the economy and jobs, and Romney will put things back on track.”

In Orlando, Lynnette Acosta of the Obama For America campaign is excited by the interest and participation from “not only the area’s increasing number of Puerto Ricans, but also Venezuelans, Colombians and Brazilians who are volunteering and getting involved in the campaign,” she says.

Acosta says Latinos in the Orlando area have seen recent visits by not only the President and Vice President but San Antonio Mayor and Democratic convention speaker Julian Castro, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, and even former Puerto Rican governors from rival island political parties, who both support Obama.

In their ads and their outreach, the campaign stresses Obama’s health care legislation, increased funding for Pell Grants and college access, and the improvement in jobs and the economy. The Romney campaign stresses that Governor Romney would produce a better climate for small businesses and decrease regulation, and cites his business experience and gubernatorial experience as proof.

So here in Florida, Latinos will be watching the debate, and the campaigns will be watching Latinos, as the campaigns make their final push on the tight presidential race.

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