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The race to define Ryan in Florida

By Ana Navarro, CNN Contributor
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Wed August 15, 2012
Ana Navarro says that Rep. Paul Ryan's effect in Florida depends primarily on two voting groups: seniors and Hispanics.
Ana Navarro says that Rep. Paul Ryan's effect in Florida depends primarily on two voting groups: seniors and Hispanics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Paul Ryan's effect in Florida depends mostly on seniors and Hispanics, says Ana Navarro
  • During his visit to Florida this weekend, Ryan needs to clearly define himself, she says
  • Democrats and Republicans will wage a Medicare battle in Florida, she says
  • Navarro: Ryan needs to make his feelings about immigration and Cuba explicit

Editor's note: Ana Navarro, Republican strategist and commentator, served as national Hispanic campaign chairwoman for John McCain in 2008 and national Hispanic co-chair for Jon Huntsman's 2012 campaign. Follow her on Twitter @ananavarro.

(CNN) -- The Veepstakes guessing game is over.

In the red corner, we have Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, America's "comeback team." In the blue corner, we have Barack Obama and Joe Biden, America's current team. Let's get ready to rumble.

Now that we know who the players are, the race is on to define Paul Ryan. Winning the contest of turning him into either a villain or hero could determine the election in several states, none more important than Florida, the big kid on the swing-state block. Paul Ryan has great potential, the potential to be an asset or a liability to the Republican ticket. How he affects the election in Florida depends primarily on two voting groups, seniors and Hispanics.

We just don't know how he will play with those two groups. Polls show that most Americans don't know much about Rep. Paul Ryan. Political junkies either love or hate the Ryan Plan, but average Americans are more likely to be conversant on the latest contestants on "Dancing with the Stars" than on the intricacies of Ryan's budget proposal.

Ana Navarro
Ana Navarro

The day after Ryan's selection was unveiled, headlines in the major Florida papers predicted Ryan could be a drag on the Republican ticket. The Romney campaign soon announced Ryan would visit Florida this next weekend. Ryan needs to clearly and unequivocally define himself.

There will be a Medicare battle waged in Florida, a state with one of the biggest senior populations in the country. Democrats will say Ryan will end Medicare as we know it. Republicans will say he is a courageous leader who offers a responsible solution to the inevitable bankruptcy of Medicare and Social Security.

I live in Florida and have seen this movie before. It usually involves scary robo-calls and political mailers targeting seniors.

Opinion: Does Ryan Medicare plan make sense?

Ryan's first interview as VP candidate
Fact checking Ryan's Medicare plan
Voters react to Ryan VP pick

While in Florida, he should also do Hispanic outreach. Latinos don't know Ryan from Adán. Given the standing of the Republican brand with Latinos, that may be a good thing. Not being known is better than being disliked.

Soon after Ryan was named, my inbox filled up with e-mails about his vote against the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented young people brought here as children to become legal under certain circumstances. This is a popular and emotion-laden measure among Latinos. Ryan had also been an opponent of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. This is a heresy for a dependable voting block of Cuban-American Republicans. Yikes!

One of the negatives of a running mate with a long career in Congress is having to defend and explain an extensive voting record. This can be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

Though Ryan voted against the Dream Act, he has not engaged in angry rhetoric towards immigrants or been a champion one way or another on immigration issues. He has not built his career by fanning anti-immigrant flames. Many in Congress, including Democrats, voted against the Dream Act. However, that vote makes him the only one of the four names on the ballot to have cast a vote against it.

I don't know, and I suspect others don't either, if Ryan supports some other legal recourse for undocumented students and adults. He should tell us if he does before Democrats use his immigration votes to drive a wedge with the Latino community.

Yes, Ryan voted in the past against the Cuban embargo. He comes from the Midwest, where the thought of selling farm goods to the island is appealing. His Cuban-American colleagues from Miami, including Congressmen Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, say Ryan had a genuine conversion after they sat down with him and explained the realities of the totalitarian Cuban government. He has since then voted in favor of maintaining the embargo. Ryan should explain his change of heart or risk Democrats taking advantage of his past record to suppress the vote of Republican Cuban-Americans.

Opinion: Why Paul Ryan?

Ryan comes across as an articulate and earnest man of conviction and faith. He is a Catholic who, unlike Romney, has no qualms speaking about his religious beliefs. The Romney campaign should allow him to speak directly and engage in a constructive debate.

Paul Ryan is comfortable showing emotion, so let him. He is very good at speaking about policy, so let him. Surprisingly, he stumbled out of the blocks in his first solo interview with Brit Hume earlier this week. He gave fuzzy answers to questions about the Romney budget. He said, "We haven't run the numbers on that specific plan."

Boston, run the numbers now! Ryan is perceived as a numbers and ideas guy who can explain wonky concepts in lay terms. The expectations for him when discussing fiscal issues are high. There is no room for error.

Paul Ryan can help win Florida and Latinos, but only if he lets us get to know him before the Democrats turn him into the monster underneath the bed.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ana Navarro.

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