Washington Babylon — January 16, 2008, 2:30 pm

Romney Survives Last Stand in Michigan: Can Rudy, with right-wing Cuban help, do the same in Florida?

I admit I didn’t see Mitt Romney winning the Michigan primary over John McCain, certainly not by as comfortable a margin as 9 percent. Still, it’s hard to see how Romney’s victory in Michigan, where his father was once governor, will give him a big enough bounce to win the upcoming South Carolina primary and become the genuine frontrunner for the nomination. On the other hand, the G.O.P. field is so fractured and weak that anything’s possible.

Mitt celebrated his victory–secured with some $2 million in TV advertising–with a typically vapid speech to supporters. “Washington is broken, and we’re going to do something about it,” said the man who enjoys the political and financial support of much of the Republican establishment. Many analysts argued that the key to Romney’s victory were his sunny pronouncements on the Michigan economy, which stood in contrast to McCain’s more realistic assessments. The latter, for example, stated that some of the state’s manufacturing jobs were gone for good. “For days on end, Romney portrayed McCain as a dour pessimist who had given up on benighted Michigan while he, the successful business executive, was going to make Michigan’s lost jobs a singular focus of his administration,” reported the Washington Post. It quoted Tom Rath, a senior Romney strategist, as saying, “Ours was a vision of optimism, of hope. His was gloom.”

So Romney won with his upbeat message–on a day that the stock market plunged by nearly 300 points and Citibank announced a staggering $9.8 billion quarterly loss.

Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani’s 9/11 roadshow campaign is holed up in Florida, where he’s hoping to win the January 29 primary by appealing to conservative voters, giving special emphasis to right-wing Cubans. On January 3, even as the other top GOP presidential contenders were in Iowa on the day of that state’s caucuses, Giuliani traveled to the Miami area to woo Cuban exiles. “The best way to deal with tyrants and dictators and terrorists is from strength, not weakness,” Giuliani told a rally, according to a story in the Palm Beach Post. Now Rudy’s wooing Cubans with a new radio ad running in Florida. As TPM Election Central noted, “Rudy watchers will be glad to know that he’s no longer exploiting the pain of September 11. Instead, he’s now exploiting ‘el dolor de aquel 11 de septiembre.’”

Among Giuliani’s strong backers in Florida is the Bacardi family, the famous Cuban exiles, rum distillers, and political dealmakers. Lawyers for the Bacardi firm helped draft a bill in the mid-1990s that tightened the American economic embargo on Cuba. In 1998, Otto Reich–then a Bacardi lobbyist and later named by George W. Bush via a controversial recess appointment as an assistant secretary of state–helped slip a measure into a 4,000-plus page bill that aided Bacardi in a longstanding business dispute with Havana Club, which is co-owned by the Cuban government and the French company Pernod Ricard. (Bacardi also claims the Havana Club label.)

Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay was a major congressional backer of Bacardi. In 2003, Roll Call reported that “DeLay planned to slip an amendment revising U.S. trademark statutes into the annual defense authorization bill,” a move specifically designed to aid Bacardi. The effort failed, in part because the amendment “had not been properly vetted by the Judiciary panel, which is supposed to oversee trademark law.”

Bacardi, in turn, was one of DeLay’s leading benefactors, giving at least $40,000 to political funds that he founded. Some of those donations proved controversial. In 2004, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint alleging that Bacardi USA’s political action committee “violated federal campaign laws by failing to report campaign contributions” to a number of Republicans, including a $2,500 donation to DeLay’s Americans for a Republican Majority (ARMPAC). CREW also reported that “Bacardi provided free liquor and merchandise to members of Congress and lobbyists who attended an ARMPAC fundraiser at a golf resort in Puerto Rico.” Bacardi later negotiated a settlement with the Federal Election Commission and paid a civil penalty of $750.

That same year another DeLay-linked fund, Texans for a Republican Majority, was charged with “raising illegal corporate contributions and funneling them to state candidates.” One of the contributions allegedly came from Bacardi USA, which was indicted at the same time. The case against Bacardi is still pending, according to the district attorney’s office in Travis County, Texas. The company has denied any wrongdoing. This was all part of the case that led later to DeLay’s own indictment and subsequent resignation from Congress. Bacardi has donated to his legal defense fund as well.

Now the Bacardis are backing Giuliani’s presidential bid. Between March and August of last year, family members and Bacardi executives contributed nearly $30,000 to his presidential cause. Those who donated included Facundo Bacardi, chairman of Bacardi Ltd., and John Esposito, CEO of Bacardi USA.

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More from Ken Silverstein:

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