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Dems, GOP assess Latino impact

Can it swing the national vote?

By John Helton
George W. Bush's campaign in 2000 targeted the Latino vote.

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Republicans say President Bush has put them in position to build a base among Latino voters.

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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Both Republicans and Democrats are courting the Latino vote in this year's election. And there is the potential that four states with large Latino populations might have an impact on the outcome.

Republicans want to parlay President Bush's appeal to Latinos into a larger share of the electorate. Last week, the Bush campaign rolled out its first ads -- in English and in Spanish.

Democrats say they've learned their lesson about taking Latinos for granted and losing votes in the 2000 election. They've test-marketed ads in Florida and Nevada that they say changed Latino voters' opinions.

The New Democrat Network launched its Spanish-language advertising campaign the day after the Bush ads came out.

Hispanics make up the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and the Latino vote went from 2.5 million in 1980 to nearly 6 million in 2000. The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, which studies Latino issues, projects 6.7 million Latinos will vote this year, based on Census Bureau data. (Interactive: Charting the growth of the Latino vote)

But experts are split on whether the Latino vote is cohesive enough to sway a national election.

"Every four years, there is this claim that Latinos can swing the election. But if no Latino had voted at all (in the 2000 presidential election), it would have been exactly the same," Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor, told a conference on the Latino vote that the Rivera institute put on at the University of Southern California in February.

"I don't think that you can say that there's a 'Latino vote,' " said Angelo Falcon, senior policy executive for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund in New York. "There are so many subtleties and differences within the community between national origin and what region they live in."

The vote on the North American Free Trade agreement in 1996 illustrates differences.

Robert DePosada, president of the Latino Coalition, summed it up this way: Latinos from the Southwest supported NAFTA because of the jobs and trade with Mexico it would bring. Puerto Ricans and Latinos from California opposed the agreement because of their ties with labor. Cuban-Americans initially withheld support but ultimately voted for it.

Two-thirds of U.S. Latinos -- 66.9 percent -- are from Mexico, 8.6 percent are from Puerto Rico and 3.7 percent from Cuba. Latinos from Central and South American countries make up 14.3 percent of the population, and the other 6.5 percent comes from other Hispanic countries.

The largest blocs of Latino voters are concentrated in two states, Republican-controlled Texas and Democrat-dominated California, and Latinos are not expected to vote any differently from how they did in 2000.

Cuban-Americans used to be the largest Hispanic group in Florida but have over the last decade become overshadowed in sheer numbers by non-Cuban Latinos, and now make up just 31 percent of the Hispanic population there.

But many of the new Florida residents are not citizens or don't vote, according to Dr. Dario Moreno, who studies Cuban-American issues at Florida International University in Miami. The Cuban-American minority makes up 8 percent of Florida's electorate, while non-Cuban Latinos, who tend not to vote as often, are 3 percent.

Four key states

Party operatives and academics say Florida, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico are expected to be in play this year.

Between them, the four states hold 47 of the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the presidency. (Interactive: Four key states).

New Mexico has the highest percentage of Latino residents in the country at 42 percent, just 2 percent less than the percentage of whites, and Florida has the fourth-largest Hispanic population, behind California, Texas and New York.

More than a quarter of Arizona's population and 20 percent of Nevada's is Latino. Bush won both states in 2000 -- Arizona by 6 percentage points and Nevada by 3.

Arizona and Nevada have two of the fastest-growing Latino populations, but they have also seen increases in white-collar jobs, which traditionally vote Republican.

Florida and New Mexico played significant roles in the 2000 election -- Florida's disputed vote gave Bush a narrow margin of victory. And Vice President Al Gore's 366-vote win in New Mexico made Florida an issue.

Values that connect

Republican operatives say they are making inroads into the Latino vote beyond Bush's personal appeal.

"There are values that connect," said San Antonio, Texas, ad executive Frank Guerra, who is part of Bush's re-election effort and has worked on the Republican campaigns of Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

"You drive through these neighborhoods and you see these mom-and-pop businesses -- they are so tied to small business -- it's a natural marriage to the GOP," Guerra said. "They connect on the issues that face small businesses."

In a September debate hosted by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Democratic candidates' comments were simulcast nationally in Spanish.

Michael Madrid, who advises campaigns on Latino issues and was political director for the California Republican Party, says younger Hispanic voters are more likely to be in step with the GOP than their parents or grandparents.

"They are increasingly attending and graduating from college, home ownership among them is higher, they are more fiscally conservative," he said. "They have a vested economic stake in the fabric of this country. That is changing their political attitudes."

Republicans say Latinos also connect on a shared social conservatism -- on what they call family values and religious issues. But others say that doesn't translate to votes.

"It's true that Puerto Ricans and Mexicans are likely to be anti-abortion and conservative on some social issues, but that's not what they're voting on," said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a political scientist in the University of California-Irvine's Chicano/Latino Studies program.

"What's driving party identification is economic and educational issues, and so far Democrats seem to have sway in those areas."

"Republicans have gotten it half right -- Latinos are socially conservative, but they are conservative on issues that they believe shouldn't play a role in a public debate," said Fernando Guerra, who directs the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University and before that was head of the university's Chicano studies program. "These are things that should be dealt with in the family or within their religion."

Bedolla said Latinos have a different understanding of government's role than the Republican Party does.

"There are real reasons why they're Democrats -- it's not just random," she said. "They believe in Social Security, they believe in health care. Ask them the direct question 'Do you think government should be larger or smaller?' and they are likely to answer 'larger.' That's a pretty significant policy difference with the Republican Party."

GOP's two paths with Latinos

Republicans say Bush has presented them the opportunity to make inroads into a part of the electorate that has traditionally been a Democratic stalwart.

Republicans say Bush has presented them the opportunity to expand the Republican Party's base among Latinos beyond its dependable Cuban-American supporters.

"Bush's personality drives a lot of it, his affinity for the community, his history of being from the Southwest," Madrid said. But for Republicans to build upon the Latino base Bush has built, he said, will take a broader commitment to including Latinos in policy.

"It can't be a cosmetic approach," he said. "It can't be a six-weeks-before-the-end-of-the-election, wrap yourself in a sombrero and say 'Viva whoever it is'."

Madrid uses California and Texas to illustrate the two paths Republicans can choose:

"There were radically different tacks in approaching the Hispanic electorate -- in Texas you see an embracing and engaging of the community, and 10 years later you see Republicans totally dominating that state.

"California is the exact opposite. Our party leadership chose to demonize and vilify the immigrant whether illegal or legal, and the party virtually disappeared, became pretty much irrelevant."

Lionel Sosa, who has worked with Madrid and Frank Guerra on Republican campaigns and whose ties to the GOP go back to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, thinks Democrats who don't see that shifts are occurring are "in denial."

"If they don't think anything's changing, that it's business as usual, that's fine with me," he said.

Hitting the streets and airwaves
The New Democrat Network launched an ad campaign last week accusing Bush of breaking promises to Latinos.

Maria Cardona, vice president for media relations and director of the Hispanic Project for the New Democrat Network, said Democrats did treat Latinos as business as usual in 2000 but that they won't repeat that mistake.

"We sort of assumed it was going to be a cakewalk," she said. "The economy was still good, economic indicators were good. There wasn't a compelling reason to think that Gore wouldn't win."

For the past two years, Democrats have been preparing from the ground up, Cardona said. Activists on the ground are getting voter lists up to date, registering voters and walking the precincts, she said.

In concert with that, the NDN launched its Spanish-language ad campaign targeting Latino voters.

Ads began airing Friday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Las Vegas, Nevada and Phoenix, Arizona, and will air in the Florida cities of Orlando, Miami and Tampa on Wednesday, the day after the Florida primary.

"We're going to tell our story and ensure that they're on our side," she said.

The NDN has tested ads with Latinos in key cities like Orlando, Florida, and Las Vegas, Cardona said, and says polling before and after the ads show "they cut into Bush's numbers significantly."

The campaign will use television, radio, print and the Internet to spread the message, primarily in Spanish, Cardona said.,

Republicans will also use a multimedia approach aimed at Hispanic voters, Sosa said, but in English as well as Spanish.

The GOP ads aimed at Latino voters that launched last week show Latinos among other Americans to show inclusiveness, Sosa said.

Question of personalities

Sosa is predicting a close election that will hinge on the candidate's persona.

"Latinos want someone they like, someone they can trust, a strong leader with strong character," he said. "There's a comfort level with Bush that [Democratic front-runner Sen. John] Kerry couldn't possibly have."

Cardona said though Kerry isn't well-known among Latino voters, he has traits that will resonate with them.

"I think his Vietnam war-hero past will play well to Latinos -- a lot of them have sons and daughters in the military," she said. "Service to the country is highly regarded."

Coming Tuesday: Republicans say Bush has put them in position to build a base among Latino voters.

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