By msnbc's Xuan Thai
Florida's diverse Hispanic population can make or break any candidate in this swing state. While Republicans traditionally have an advantage among Cuban Americans, a fight is on to make inroads with other Hispanic groups in the state.
"That's the exciting thing, I think about Florida, is that the Latino community is very diverse," conservative activist Alfonso Aguilar told Chuck Todd on Monday’s The Daily Rundown.
Aguilar is the former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush and currently works as the Executive Director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
“The reality is Republicans cannot win the White House if they don't get 40% of the Latino vote [nationwide],” said Aguilar.
In Florida alone, there are nearly 1.5 million registered Hispanic voters, of those over 450,000 are registered Republicans and 565,000 are registered Democrats, according to state records. That leaves nearly a half a million votes up for grabs.
Floridians of Puerto Rican descent make up 28% of registered Hispanic voters and Aguilar believes they’re a key to the future.
"They're very independent so they could swing, they could go for [President] Obama or they could go for the Republican candidate," said Aguilar. "For Puerto Ricans, it's the issue of the economy and unemployment and also the issue of Puerto Rico's political status, which they care deeply about."
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the field in Florida in the new NBC News/Marist poll. Although Romney has been pushed on immigration-related issues like visa programs, the Dream Act, , and Cuba, Aguilar said there’s a reason it hasn’t hurt him.
"Immigration is not the number one issue and perhaps that's one of the reasons Governor Romney has an edge with Latino voters in Florida because immigration is not such an important issue," said Aguilar.
At the same time, Aguilar said that Romney’s rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, has done a better job of talking to Hispanic voters.
"The Gingrich campaign understands,” Aguilar said on The Daily Rundown. “His plan is palatable to Latinos. When he announced it he didn't drop in the polls, in fact he went up. He said this is my position, he framed it in conservative terms and he said I'm willing to take heat for it.”
After Florida votes, the candidates move on to the Nevada and Colorado, which also have large Hispanic populations.
You can reach Xuan Thai on Twitter at @xuan_thai