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McCain gets personal, talking about Cuba

January 25, 2008 |  6:34 pm

John McCain did more than revel in the praise that Mel Martinez lavished on him in Miami today as the Florida senator endorsed the Arizona senator's bid for the Republican presidential nomination.

McCain, in a joint appearance with Martinez, revealed to a well-heeled, predominantly Cuban American crowd that his commitment to ending communist rule in their native country includes a personal element.

More so than in his 2000 White House campaign, McCain has been referencing his years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. So it was that he told his listeners at a downtown hotel:

“There’s a person I want you to help me find when Cuba is free, and that’s that Cuban that came to the prison camps of North Vietnam and tortured and killed my friends. We’ll get him and bring him to justice, too.”

The audience of more than 100, not surprisingly, ate it up.

The Times' Maeve Reston was at the event, and she reports that McCain later told the media he did not know the Cuban man’s identity. But he added: “We have had many of my friends who have done ...

composite drawings of him; they remember his face very well.”

Martinez, who was born in Cuba and came to the United States by himself at age 15 (his parents sent him here but initially stayed behind), had vouched for McCain's opposition to Fidel Castro's regime before turning the microphone over to his fellow lawmaker.

“I would not endorse someone that I didn’t have total confidence is going to be Castro’s worst nightmare,” he told his listeners.

Martinez, who served as Housing secretary under President Bush before winning his Senate seat in 2004 and also serving as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said he planned to stay neutral in the GOP presidential sweepstakes, but changed his mind Thursday night.

He said he decided "that I couldn’t sit on the sidelines. John McCain is a good man; he needs to be our next president, and I basically decided I couldn’t sit idly by.”

Martinez's help can't hurt McCain's efforts to nail down Cuban American votes in Florida's Tuesday primary. But exactly how much help it will provide is unclear.

Veteran Florida political observers note that Martinez's home base is in Orlando, where he established a successful law practice before entering politics. The vast bulk of the Cuban-American electorate is centered on the state's other coast, in the Miami area.

-- Don Frederick       

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