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GOP: Bush helping build a Latino base

By John Helton

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Stay with CNN-USA all night as returns come in from the primaries in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Our political team of correspondents and analysts will have updates and reports on all the action.
CNN's John Zarrella on Cuban-Americans as a key to elections in Florida.

CNN's Candy Crowley on the war of words between George Bush and John Kerry.

CNN's Bill Schneider analyzes the results of new CNN/USA Today/Gallup polling.
Interactive: The Latino vote in four key states
Interactive: Charting the growth in the Latino vote

• Humorists prefer Bush
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• Tuesday, March 9: Primaries in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas

• Sunday, March 14: Nevada county caucuses

• Tuesday, March 16: Illinois primary

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When is your primary? For more key dates in the 2004 election season, see our special America Votes 2004 Election Calendar
• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
George W. Bush
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America Votes 2004

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Republicans say President Bush has put them in position to build a base among Latino voters.

Whether the party will fall in with Bush's inclusiveness isn't clear. (Monday's story: Assessing the Latino vote's impact)

"We've got a unique president at a unique time that has made that possible -- George Bush has clearly opened the door for that, but whether or not our party leaders step through it is another question," said Michael Madrid, a Sacramento, California-based Republican consultant.

"That's what Latinos like -- a good, strong leader with a strong character, he's a good family man, he's likable, he's trusted -- the combination of all those things," said Lionel Sosa, an advertising executive who is working on Bush's media campaign.

Others who study Latino politics aren't so sure that Bush's appeal to Latinos extends beyond his native Texas. (Interactive: Four key states).

"It's especially true in Texas, but he hardly comes to California, so it doesn't exist as much here," said Dr. Fernando Guerra, a political science professor who directs Loyola-Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

"But I will say this about George W. Bush he is the first presidential nominee that when he thinks about minorities he thinks Mexican-American -- just like the affinity (former President Bill) Clinton had with blacks," Guerra said.

Dr. Dario Moreno, who studies Cuban-American politics and U.S.-Latin America relations at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, said he thinks Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has pushed his brother into a tougher stance on Cuba and that helps him with Cuban-Americans.

"Jeb helps George tremendously in Florida," Moreno said.

Guerra said he thinks Bush's inclusiveness with Latinos is aimed at moderate white voters.

"It allows him to say 'See, we're not anti-ethnic,' " Guerra said. "It helps with his compassionate Republican credentials."

Madrid says the debate within the Republican Party over Bush's proposed immigration amnesty program is a good indication of what path the party will take.

He said the right wing's criticism of Bush's proposal has opened some old wounds. Madrid said he had gotten hate mail for his support of the proposal.

"We have an opportunity to change that dynamic or we can write this constituency off for the next couple of generations. It's just the way the party leadership decides to go in," he said.

Democrats: Bush lost advantage

Democrats say Bush has lost whatever advantage he had among Latino voters because he hasn't delivered on promises that got him elected.

"That might have worked a year and a half ago, but there's now a credibility gap among Latino voters -- he hasn't delivered on the promises of 2000," said Maria Cardona, vice president for media relations and director of the Hispanic Project for the New Democrat Network.

"I think Latinos wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially after September 11," she said.

"The number of uninsured Latinos has risen steadily, he's cut loans to small businesses and entrepreneurs, he's cut loans to prospective college students, he's cut funding for after-school programs. He promised that he would make Latin America a priority and he's treated (Mexican) President (Vicente) Fox as a joke," Cardona said.

Frank Guerra, a San Antonio, Texas, advertising executive and a member of Bush's advertising team, said he would hold up the president's record against that of the administration he succeeded.

"Hispanics are going to look back and say, 'We had eight years of a Democratic president before President Bush and what did they do for us? And then when it came time for the vice president to run for president, he disregarded us,' Guerra said.

"So I think the Democrats, when they begin to raise issues about whether the president performed as well as he could or should have, they're also going to have to answer this question -- what did the Democrats do for them when they were in power for eight years?" he said.

Others dispute the impact that Bush has had in attracting Latino voters.

Lisa Garcia Bedolla, a political scientist at the University of California-Irvine, says too much has been made of the 35 percent of the Latino electorate that Bush tallied in 2000. (Interactive: Charting the growth of the Latino vote)

Ronald Reagan got 34 and 37 percent of the Latino vote in his two presidential campaigns and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, got 30 percent of the vote in 1988 and 25 percent in 1992.

Sen. Robert Dole got only 21 percent of the Latino vote in 1996.

"Dole did abysmally badly," Bedolla said, "so if you actually compare Bush Jr. to Bush Sr., Bush didn't to that much differently to what other Republicans have gotten.

"The Republicans can have another convention with Ricky Martin and Vicente Fernandez and all these people," she said, "So until the Republican Party changes many of its core positions, I don't see how they would appeal to Latinos."

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