Latino vote in '04 is a big enchilada

Democrats make new bid for Hispanic voters - who are now more numerous, independent.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Among all the what-ifs of the contested 2000 presidential election, here's one: In Miami, the Bush campaign spent more than $800,000 on Spanish-language television ads and Al Gore spent nothing.

If Vice President Gore had fought as hard as George W. Bush did for the Latino vote in Florida, could he have won that critical state? No one will ever know, but Democrats wish they could have that decision over again. Money was partly to blame; the Gore campaign just didn't have as much as Bush, and chose instead to focus its Florida resources in Tampa and Orlando, where strategists thought they had the best chance of picking up votes.

But the lack of outreach to Miami Latinos - now a far more politically diverse population than just conservative Cuban immigrants - clearly reflected "a misreading of the potential benefit of outreach to the Hispanic community in some of the key battleground states," says Adam Segal, director of the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University.

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The Democrats won't make that mistake again, especially now that Hispanics are the largest minority population in America, at nearly 40 million people. Last Thursday, congressional Democrats unveiled a policy agenda aimed at wooing that voter bloc, highlighting the economy, education, healthcare, civil rights, and immigration.

Democrats have historically commanded a majority of the Latino vote, but not as resoundingly as they win the black vote, which is more than 90 percent Democratic. In 2000, Bush won more of the Hispanic vote (35 percent) than previous Republican presidential nominees. In that election, Hispanics represented 7 percent of voters and blacks 10 percent of voters. If noncitizen Hispanics in the US were to gain citizenship and register, the number of Hispanic voters would double, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. Hispanics - people of Latin American or Spanish descent - are America's fastest-growing demographic group. During the 1990s, their population grew 58 percent.

Thus, as never before, the battle is on for this massive swath of voters and potential voters. Democrats acknowledge that their Hispanic agenda contains few new initiatives, and is instead a reaffirmation of their commitment to Hispanic empowerment. Their aim is to make Hispanic voters feel included as part of the larger American mosaic while at the same time targeting issues that particularly affect Latinos, such as immigration.

"Democrats know that Hispanic values are American values," the Democratic plan begins.

"If they [the Democrats] are indeed going to do something, they had better be serious," says Lionel Sosa, a veteran Hispanic media consultant in San Antonio. "They have been giving lip service to the Hispanic vote forever."

He predicts the Democrats will try to woo Hispanic votes with more handouts, and calls that an antiquated approach, dating from the 1960s. Then, Hispanics began identifying with the Democratic Party because of President Kennedy's Roman Catholic faith and his positioning of the party with the poor and downtrodden. Now, says Mr. Sosa, the Latino community is much more diverse; more Latinos are calling themselves political independents than in the past.

"The message they're identifying with is opportunity, inclusion in the American dream, being treated as equal Americans," he says.

One area where the Bush administration is seen as having let down Hispanics is in relations with Mexico. During the 2000 campaign, Bush promised to make Latin America a foreign policy priority, and as president he followed up with an initiative to grant immigration amnesty to 3 million Mexicans in the US. But the Sept. 11 attacks halted that momentum, and now US-Mexican relations are strained over a variety of issues.

A recent nationwide poll by Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster in Florida, found that 69 percent of Hispanic voters believe Bush has not kept his promise on Latin America. But in the end, it is the same issues that Americans as a whole care about that top the list for Hispanic voters: education (31 percent), jobs and the economy (29), healthcare (10), and Social Security (8).

Within the Democratic Party, the Hispanic vote is also taking on unprecedented importance. For the first time, the first big multi-state primary date - Feb. 3, 2004 - will include two states with large Hispanic populations, New Mexico and Arizona. Dubbed "Hispanic Tuesday," these primaries are presenting the Democrats with an opportunity to fine-tune their message to Hispanic voters.

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