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Hispanics a key to Texas Democratic deadlock

  • Story Highlights
  • Hispanic voters could win or lose delegate-rich Texas for Clinton, Obama
  • Democratic consultant: "We're in uncharted territory here"
  • Obama could win with votes from younger Hispanics
  • Clinton victory could come through loyal grass-roots network
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By Thom Patterson
CNN
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AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- The virtually tied Texas Democratic primary has East Austin diners talking at Cisco's, where politicos have gathered over breakfast for generations.

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Cisco's breakfast cafe in largely Hispanic East Austin, is a popular meeting place for Texas politicos.

A day before the critical election, the state's 3.6 million eligible Hispanic voters could tip the balance in delegate-rich Texas toward Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. But they're deeply divided.

"Don't get me wrong, I love Hillary Clinton," said Manuel Hernandez over his morning coffee and huevos rancheros. "But she just doesn't attract me the way that Barack Obama does."

Both campaigns are targeting voters in the state's heavily Hispanic regions: The New York senator is relying on a loyal grass-roots network of community leaders, while Obama is working to attract younger voters to the polls.

The stakes are sky-high for both candidates, as each looks at Texas and Ohio voters on Tuesday to help rack up more delegates needed to win the party nomination. After 11 straight defeats by Obama, Clinton's longtime strategist James Carville has said if the former first lady fails in either Texas or Ohio, "this thing is done." Video Watch more about why Latinos are critical in Texas »

"Loyal Hispanics may save Clinton -- or younger Hispanic voters may allow Obama to basically wrap up the nomination in Texas," said Democratic consultant Kelly Fero.

Voter surveys suggest Obama may be chipping away at Clinton's domination of the Hispanic vote.

A recent Gallup poll of eligible Hispanic voters nationwide showed Obama not only erasing a 31-point gap against Clinton in just a week, but taking the lead by 4 percentage points.

Clinton led Obama 63 percent to 32 percent in the poll's results from February 5-9. But by February 13-17, Obama had taken the lead 50 percent to 46 percent. See how Latinos make up a large portion of U.S. voters »

The tracking poll, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points, surveyed about 2,000 eligible Democratic voters.

At Cisco's, where politicos ranging from former Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry have mixed their eggs and politics, Hernandez has made up his mind.

"I want a change in the politics, I just don't want to see another Clinton name up there -- and all that baggage coming off her husband," said Hernandez, who works with Austin parks and recreation. "However," he laughs, "my friends that are Hispanic are all voting for Hillary."

Hernandez and others at the diner named the economy, health care insurance, immigration, education and the Iraq war as issues most important to them.

Last month a Texas A&M/Latino Decisions nonpartisan survey interviewed 500 Latino registered voters in the state and found an overwhelming majority opposed a proposed fence along the U.S.-Mexican border to control illegal immigration. An overwhelming majority of poll respondents also favored ending the Iraq war and free state college tuition for undocumented students who grew up in Texas and graduated from state high schools.

The poll showed Clinton as viewed favorably by 76 percent of respondents, and 66 percent said they viewed Obama favorably.

Cisco's manager, Elizabeth "Punky" Boyce, tells how President Johnson's aides used to call the cafe's owner, the late Rudy "Cisco" Cisneros, minutes before his motorcade would arrive, alerting him that "Clyde" was about to stop for a visit.

Decades later, Cisco's has changed little, she said, with its bright, old fashioned Formica tabletops in the front and the darkened backroom, with its big, round table where high-stakes card games went into the night.

Not far from the grill, diners remarked how similar Obama and Clinton are on many issues -- and because of that -- they've chosen their candidates based on their gut feelings.

"Being a minority, Obama understands what it is to struggle," said Hernandez. "A lot of people don't understand that as a minority we have to struggle coming up." Cisco's server Lydia Guerreo says she's comfortable with Clinton because the senator has campaigned in Texas for 30 years on behalf of her husband or other Democrats.

"Mrs. Clinton will help Spanish people more with immigration and health care," said the 48-year-old single mother of four. Guerreo is concerned about how her son, who's attending college, will be able to pay for his education as the nation's economy slows.

Austin has seen much economic change in past decades, such as when the home of the University of Texas added semi-conductor and software businesses along with computer giant Dell, earning the nickname "Silicon Hills." Local Democratic officials described the city's economy as "vibrant," pointing out new home construction in East Austin as evidence.

During this decade, Texas is seeing a generational change in its political landscape, said Fero, as a new and larger generation of Hispanics has come of voting age in time for this critical primary.

"The more voters you have, the closer the contest," said Fero, who's not allied with either Clinton or Obama. "We're in real uncharted territory here."

State Rep. Juan Garcia, an Obama supporter in heavily Hispanic South Texas, agreed that "without a doubt there is a generational piece to this thing."

Voters at Cisco's also said they were seeing more interest among younger Hispanic voters than during any election in memory.

Ten days of early voting, which ended on Friday, has already resulted in heavy turnout compared to 2004 -- including many traditionally Hispanic precincts, according to unofficial returns. Texas' most populous 15 counties showed five times more Democrats showing up to cast ballots early than four years ago, according to the secretary of state's Web site.

At Clinton's Austin headquarters, evidence of the push to win Hispanics was as evident as the Spanish writing on the wall. "Yo soy tu chica!" -- or "I'm your girl!" said the ruby red reference to Clinton scrawled on an office window.

She's facing intense pressure from the string of Obama victories, but Clinton strategist and longtime friend Garry Mauro said Texas represents "just as big a test for Sen. Obama as it is for us. He can't lose Texas."

Mauro, a former Texas land commissioner, expressed confidence that Clinton's grass-roots network will serve her well in the end. "Those roots go deep," he said. "But the Hispanic community also is very young. It's not just about those roots, it's also about communicating with those young Hispanic voters today."

In addition to Austin, other key Texas battlegrounds to win Hispanic voters include populous Houston and Dallas, targeted because some state delegates are allocated based on 2004 voter turnout.

But nowhere else is the fight for Hispanic voters more competitive than South Texas, where Clinton and Obama have enlisted powerful political forces to rally support.

"Hispanic South Texas is Clinton country and that really is her most important base for support," said Fero.

Popular former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos has been stumping for Clinton in the region, speaking to voters who, he said, want an experienced candidate. "They want somebody they know, who's been in the trenches, somebody that's been working on health care for years," he said.

Obama has been playing catch up in South Texas against Clinton's "familiarity quotient" since early February, said Obama supporter U.S. Rep. Charles Gonzalez. "It doesn't give you much time to come into Texas and establish a relationship with voters -- over the relationship Clinton has had over the years."

Gonzalez expressed confidence that, "once people listen to [Obama] and they hear him -- they view him in a totally different light."

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Long before official Obama staffers first arrived in the state three weeks ago, grass-roots supporters have been using the Internet and other means to organize 4,000 precinct captains to go door-to-door, said spokesman Nick Shapiro.

"We've put the campaign in the precinct captains' hands and told them, 'you're the ones who are going to enact the change that Sen. Obama talks about, so we need you to go through and continue to talking to friends and neighbors in your community.'" E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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