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Democratic Party reaches out to Hispanics

From John Mercurio

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- The Democratic National Committee spent Thursday, the first day of its summer meeting, spreading one of the worst-kept secrets in its strategy to win control of Congress this fall -- party leaders vowed an unprecedented outreach to the nation's most rapidly growing group of voters, Hispanics.

And, it didn't hurt to have Wonder Woman on their team.

"There are some 5,000 Hispanics elected to office in this country, and there's a reason that 92 percent of them are Democrats," said DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who devoted most of the day to highlighting his party's Hispanic candidates for Congress -- the largest number ever, they say -- while attacking President Bush's efforts to woo Latinos as a "joke."

"The president invites a mariachi band to the White House and that's supposed to be some sort of outreach?" McAuliffe quipped.

Other Democrats who gathered this week in Las Vegas, a site chosen specifically because of its rapid Latino growth, piled on.

"You can't wear a sombrero and say a couple of words in Spanish, like the Republicans do in Washington, and then speak out of both sides of your mouth on immigration reform and call us enemies of the state in the campaign-finance reform debate," said Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who as vice chairman of the Democratic caucus is the highest-ranking Latino in Congress.

"We as Latinos have often heard about the Democratic Party's commitment to us and have questioned it at times," Menendez said. "But we see a new vigor and a new vitality. This has been the best relationship I've seen between the DNC and House Democrats."

Bush earned 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 -- a stronger-than-usual showing for a GOP candidate but still far short of Democratic candidate Al Gore's 62 percent share.

With mid-term elections three months away and control of the House and Senate at stake, both political parties are trying to build closer ties to the Hispanic community, which officially became the country's largest ethnic minority in the 2000 census. The National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, says the number of Hispanic voters will climb from 5.9 million in 2000 to 7.8 million in 2004.

So the bidding for Latino voters is fierce. DNC aides said the committee will direct millions of dollars to 15 states and dozens of key House districts with large Latino populations, including Senate candidates in North Carolina, Texas, New Mexico and Oregon.

"I made a decision after I saw the size of the check Terry McAuliffe wrote to the New Mexico Democratic Party," joked former energy secretary Bill Richardson. "I'm not going to run for governor. I'm going to retire to the Virgin Islands instead."

Richardson is running this year for governor of New Mexico.

Republicans, meanwhile, have not conceded the Latino community to Democrats. The GOP this week said it has the largest ever field of non-incumbent minorities seeking top offices this fall, including 39 Hispanic candidates in federal and major state races.

Prominent GOP candidates include Florida state Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Cuban-American candidate for a new House seat in South Florida and the brother of congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart.

But Richardson said Republicans will fall short.

"The Hispanic community is going to stay with the Democratic Party," he said during a cocktail reception at the Las Vegas Hilton celebrating the DNC's Hispanic outreach efforts. "To the Republicans, I say, you have no shot. They have a lot of rhetoric and a lot of balloons, but we have legacy, history and action."

In case some of the Democrats, gathered in a town of legendary glamour and glitz, hadn't heard the message, party leaders brought out a superhero to help make their case.

"We are Democrats and we are Hispanics. We have a powerful voice and we're going to make it heard," said Linda Carter, a Mexican-American actress most famous for her role of Wonder Woman in the 1970s. "Our voice is strong and it can be heard above any of those wimpy Republicans."




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