MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain sipped Cuban-style coffee and tossed out a few Spanish words during a sweaty rally in the heart of Miami's Cuban exile community on Wednesday, but made only one vague reference to Florida's communist Caribbean neighbor.
The former pizza company executive laid out his plan for reviving the American economy during the rally in the parking lot of the Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood.
"What about freedom for Cuba?" a man in the crowd shouted.
"Freedom for Cuba now!" Cain replied and went back to outlining his plan to boost U.S. job creation.
He said he would throw out the current tax code and "Pass a new structure called 'nueve, nueve, nueve'," the Spanish numbers for his signature 9-9-9 tax proposal to levy a flat 9 percent corporate, income and sales tax.
Cain led the polls for a while among candidates vying for the Republican nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in the November 2012 presidential election. His popularity has slipped recently amid sexual harassment allegations from several women, which he has denied.
The Versailles restaurant is the de facto headquarters of Miami's Cuban exile community and a required stop for anyone seeking votes among conservative Republican Cuban-Americans.
Following the familiar drill, Cain stepped up to the carry-out window to sample Cuban-style coffee, served strong and syrupy sweet in a tiny cup. Offered a 'croqueta,' a deep fried stick of minced ham and bread crumbs, he took one bite and laid it back on the counter.
"I am thrilled to be here at this wonderful restaurant Versailles and I did taste that wonderful Cuban coffee and a croqueta. It was delicious," he told the crowd a few minutes later. "Gracias, gracias, gracias," he thanked them.
A typical candidate visit to Versailles includes a denunciation of Cuba's communist government and some harsh criticism of leaders Fidel and Raul Castro, but Cain broke with tradition and omitted any specific condemnation.
The former radio talk show host, who appeared flustered and uncertain when asked a routine question about Libya last week, made no mention of any foreign policy.
"I'm often criticized ... criticized about the fact that I don't know this and I don't know that, and I don't know that and I don't know this," he told the crowd. "A leader doesn't have to know everything."
As a leader, he said, he would surround himself with good people and "I'll get them to put together the right plan."
Cain stopped several times to mop his brow as the midday sun beat down on the palm-tree-flanked stage on the asphalt parking lot. He said he understood hard work and "sweat equity," prompting several in the crowd to shout back "We're sweating now."
"We're sweating now!" Cain took up the cry.
One woman at the restaurant asked who Cain was, then walked away in a huff when it became clear the counter staff was too distracted to fulfill her pastry order.
But another middle-aged woman gave him a tight hug and declared, "I love you" as Cain walked through the restaurant.
"He has my same philosophy, he's a true conservative," said the woman, Fanny Roca. She said she did not believe the sexual harassment allegations against him and thought they were part of a media attempt to smear Cain as his campaign took off.
"They waited until he came at the top of the polls to say it. Why?" she asked.
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Jackie Frank