Politics With a Latino Beat

An intriguing subtheme in the presidential campaign is the competition to woo the ever-rising number of Hispanic voters.

As governor of a major border state, George W. Bush has a definite edge here. He's speaks some Spanish and has dealt with Mexico and Hispanic voters in Texas. And he has relatives of Latino background - Columba Bush, wife of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and their son, George P. Bush. He brings a personal touch to voters with ties to Latin America.

Al Gore brings his party's long support for issues dear to many Hispanics - from healthcare to civil rights. Most of these voters still favor the Democrats. George Bush senior received only about 19 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1992, and Bob Dole fared worse in 1996.

Gore is counting on that party loyalty to give him a boost in key states with large portions of Hispanics, particularly California. Bush, meanwhile, has to surmount an anti-immigrant image that clings to the GOP in California because of the policies of former Gov. Pete Wilson.

Both candidates emphasize issues - education, economic development, and reform of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, for instance - that play well with Hispanics. But there is no one right message for this complex block of voters. Candidates are likely to find distinctly different audiences among New York's Puerto Ricans, California's Mexican-Americans, and Florida's Cuban-Americans.

The latter, for example, are likely to be smarting from the Elian Gonzales case and may be more ready than ever to zero in on foreign policy matters related to Cuba. But, as the Elian case illustrated, the fiery concerns of one ethnic community can be at odds with broader American public opinion.

The same could be true of Hispanics' immigration concerns. Americans generally are more concerned about security at the border and probably hold a much different perspective.

Appeals to a particular slice of the electorate can be sensitive. Yet the candidates can't ignore Hispanics, just as politicians for over a century have sought the favor of particular ethnic groups. But an open democracy helps blend many voices into a larger chorus that unifies the nation.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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