By Warren Bull
BBC News, Miami
Florida's Cuban-American community is influential
In December last year the city of Miami hosted a televised debate involving seven Republican Party candidates for the presidency.
What made it memorable was not so much the opinions expressed, but that the debate was conducted in Spanish, with simultaneous translations of the answers.
Democratic Party hopefuls had taken part in a similar debate in Miami in September, also before a mainly Spanish-speaking audience.
It was proof that in the 2008 presidential race, the Hispanic vote mattered more than ever, and that Florida would be a key battleground.
About 20% of the Sunshine State's population is Hispanic (rising to more than 60% in Miami Dade County) and it has long played an influential and sometimes decisive role in American politics.
George W Bush would never have become the 43rd US president without the backing of more than half of Florida's Latino voters.
Florida's Hispanic community, and Cuban-Americans in particular, have also become accustomed to assuming office themselves at state and national level.
Leading examples in Washington are Senator Mel Martinez and Congressman Lincoln Rafael Diaz-Balart, both Republicans, reflecting the traditionally conservative political leanings of the Cuban exile community.
White, not Hispanic: 61.3%
Home ownership rate: 70.1%
Median household income 2004: $40,900
US median: $44,334
Source: US Census Bureau
But political analyst Professor Raul Pozo says the Hispanic community in Florida is not homogeneous:
"In the central part of Florida, the majority of the Latins are Puerto Rican. Some Central Americans are there also, and Mexicans in the north of Florida. South of Florida is basically the Cuban-American community.
"The difference is in ideology. The Cuban-American community is more conservative and likes the Republican Party more than the Democrats. The Hispanic people in Central Florida are more inclined to the Democratic Party, and of course they feel different in so far as foreign relations."
But, he said, the two communities agree on the importance of economic issues.
Florida has been hard hit by the stalling economy and housing slump, which has stopped the construction boom in its tracks, bringing large-scale job losses in the building and service industries.
High property taxes and hefty insurance rates in a state vulnerable to hurricanes have contributed to rising mortgage defaults.
"The Hispanic people want to see what the politicians are going to do to improve their salaries, to reduce their taxes, and basically to help them go to school, and in that respect the communities are completely united," said Professor Pozo.
For the Democrats, Tuesday's primary has merely symbolic value.
In a row over election dates, the national party stripped the state of its delegates to the party convention, where the Democratic nominee will be selected.
For the Republicans, the primary does matter, although only half of the party's Florida delegates will be allowed to attend their convention.
Beth Reinhard, a political writer with the Miami Herald, also said that the main campaign issue in Florida was the economy, and the associated housing crisis.
"Florida tends to do better than most states, but we're very dependent here on the real estate market. Owners are burdened with property taxes, and can't afford to move into new homes. Many, many people, are facing foreclosure, I think the rates here are among the highest in the nation."
She said her newspaper's opinion polls and anecdotal evidence suggested the Republican race was wide open.
"As our polls show, it looks like (John) McCain and (Mitt) Romney are battling for first place. I'm not ready to count out (Rudy) Giuliani because the state is so important for him," she said.
Julio Fuentes, president of the Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, also highlighted immigration and education as key issues for Hispanic voters.
"Right now one out of four Hispanics drop out of school so that's a huge concern," he said.
Florida is also home to many other Hispanic communities
Mr Fuentes said the issue of immigration had a major impact on small businesses in sectors such as landscaping and construction, as they tried to recruit the most skilled employees in the state.
"We are for a comprehensive immigration reform package. We are looking for something that is going to both fit the needs of the illegals that are currently here in our country, but at the same time let's be smart and make sure that our borders are secured," he said.
Mr Fuentes said Senator McCain, whose attempt to get an immigration reform bill through Congress narrowly failed last year, had become a champion of the issue for many Hispanic people.
For Nora Sandigo, executive director of a non-profit social services agency for immigrants, American Fraternity, the issues and candidate choices are clear. Immigration tops her list of priority issues for Hispanic voters, followed by health, the economy, education.
HISPANICS IN US
15% of population
9% of 2008 electorate
6.5% likely to vote
57% support or lean to Democrats
23% aligned with Republicans
Looking beyond the primaries to the presidential vote, would Hispanic voters resist the idea of a black president, or a woman? Ms Sandigo and Mr Fuentes do not think so.
"Having a woman or an African-American in the White House, or even having a Hispanic in the White House would be just like any other day. Just having somebody there with that kind of power and that kind of leadership role would be great to see, of course, and would be welcomed within our community," Mr Fuentes said.
It is clear is that the votes of the Hispanic community will be influential, and could help provide momentum ahead of Super Tuesday, where other large Latino communities come into play.
And with a major effort under way to register more Hispanic people for November's election, the battle for Florida - and the vote of its Hispanic community - could once again help to determine who is