MIAMI (Reuters) - Florida's Cuban-Americans have voted Republican for years. But the party could lose its grip on the heartland of exile opposition to Fidel Castro on Tuesday, signaling possible change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Polls show Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama slightly ahead or running even with his Republican rival John McCain in the state that decided the 2000 election for President George W. Bush after a disputed recount.
At the local level, in a shift almost unthinkable until recently, three Miami-based Cuban-American Republicans who serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and have long run almost unopposed are locked in tight races with Democrats.
The incumbents are all staunch supporters of the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba and restrictions on family travel and remittances that Bush imposed to toughen it in 2004.
Like Obama, their Democratic challengers want to end restrictions imposed by Bush, and bank on the conviction that Miami's hard-line anti-communism has started to fade.
The Democrats have been buoyed by a rising tide of voter registration numbers for their party and internal polls putting them in a dead heat in at least two of the three adjoining south Florida congressional districts.
Such polls cannot be independently verified, but the incumbents, running scared, have unleashed what analysts call one of the nastiest campaigns in the unsavory history of south Florida politics.
"These people are dinosaurs," said Raul Martinez, who is challenging eight-term incumbent Lincoln Diaz-Balart in Florida's 21st Congressional District.
"They never had any opposition. That's why they kept winning," Martinez told Reuters.
"You're going to see an immediate change on family travel. Those restrictions will be lifted," he added, saying an easing of Cuba policy could gain momentum quickly if it was backed by a Cuban-American lawmaker representing south Florida.
Anti-Castro sentiment still runs high among Miami's 650,000 Cuban exiles, who account for just over a quarter of the total population of the greater Miami area.
Older Cuban-Americans like Martinez, a veteran former mayor of a working-class enclave on Miami's outskirts, still remember when local Cubans favoring closer ties with their homeland risked being firebombed or targeted in a drive-by shooting.
"There were more bombings in Miami than in Belfast," said Martinez.
Violent displays of exile passion are distant memories, however. And change is evident among younger Cuban-Americans more preoccupied with the U.S. housing debacle and surging unemployment than with the situation in Cuba.
"There's one issue in this election, it's the economy," said Joe Garcia, a local political veteran running close behind three-term incumbent Mario Diaz-Balart, Lincoln's younger brother, in another congressional district.
But Cuba is still an issue, according to Mario Diaz-Balart, who maintains that Garcia and other Democrats support "unilaterally getting rid of important parts of sanctions and unilaterally asking nothing in return."
Most Cuban-Americans remain committed to a tough stance against Cuba, Diaz-Balart said, adding that Cuba's communist government had a longstanding goal of seeing hardcore Castro foes voted out of office.
"Obviously the regime's hope is that they would have somebody representing south Florida that's pushing to get rid of sanctions and clearly that's something that my opponent would be doing if he was there," he said in an interview.
The Diaz-Balarts, Fidel Castro's nephews by marriage, both say talk of change among Cuban-Americans has been overblown. But nowhere is it more evident than in the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation, which has morphed from a staunchly Republican anti-communist pressure group under its former leader Jorge Mas Canosa, who died in 1997, into a non-partisan organization that gave Obama a warm reception on a visit to Miami in May.
Mas Canosa's son, Jorge Mas Santos, now heads the group. He endorsed Obama in an opinion column in The Washington Post.
"U.S. policy toward Cuba is at best static and at worst counterproductive, a source of increasing frustration to many Cuban-Americans," said Santos, who wants to see the next president lift Bush's restrictions on family travel and cash remittances and open more channels of contact with Cuba's civil society.
Cuba-born Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a 10-term incumbent from South Florida's 18th district, seems to have the safest congressional seat among those who have made her homeland a staple of Miami politics.
But Democrat and Colombian-American businesswoman Annette Taddeo is giving the most senior Republican woman in the U.S. House the biggest fight of a career in which she has rarely faced more than token opposition.
Editing by Anthony Boadle