LOS ANGELES — When she saw Gov. Gray Davis ride by waving graciously to Latinos in the Labor Day parade here, Felicia Hernandez felt conflicting emotions.
"To be honest I wanted to throw him out of office until that moment," says Ms. Hernandez, a mother of four who lives in East Los Angeles.
After twice vetoing two similar measures, Mr. Davis just signed a bill allowing an estimated 2 million illegal immigrants to obtain a California driver's license. Opponents accuse Davis of pandering to the Latino community to gain their antirecall votes, but Hernandez says it softened her criticism of the governor. "I see him trying to change and do better," she says. "So I am torn about what to do."
As California's historic election nears, the final choices of such voters as Hernandez will provide the nation with its clearest test yet of the depth and direction of Latino political power.
What California Hispanics do in the voting booth on Oct. 7 will go a long way toward choosing whether Davis joins the unemployment lines and who might replace him. But it will also provide a window into whether Latino political clout - always portrayed as coming, some day - is finally here and whether there are any shifts in party allegiance among the rank-and-file.
To a certain extent, the California vote will be an unusual case. With a Latino in the race, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, it will likely bring a lot of Hispanics to the polls and over to his side of the ballot.
But Latinos will also be important in determining Davis's fate, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican front-runner, could draw at least some Hispanics of his own. At the moment, polls show the race tightening between Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mr. Bustamante (25 points vs. 30 points), even as growing numbers of voters oppose the recall (40 percent compared with 37 percent a month ago).
Consequently, every demographic group has taken on added importance. As the fastest growing ethnic group - now fully,30 percent of the state's population - Latinos suddenly find themselves the object of more attention than usual.
"The big story in California politics of the past few years is the growing number and volatility of moderate and swing voters who align themselves formally with neither major party," says Alan Heslop, a demographer at the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College.
The dynamic is playing into the current recall election in two important ways. One, the number of Hispanics who vote could become the decisive factor either way, especially if they are more galvanized than other voting blocs. Two, because of their importance, their policy concerns are seeing a more than proportionate slice of the campaign agendas of competing candidates.
"All the candidates are pandering to Latinos because they anticipate that they will have to get their votes in order to win," says Karen Kaufman, a Latino election specialist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "The long-term ramifications of this is we are likely to see legislation on more of the things Hispanics care about, and more influence in the process."
Nearly a third of California is now Hispanic and a large majority of them back Democrats. As recently as one month ago, at least half wanted Mr. Davis removed from office, according to the Southwest Voter Registration Project. Simultaneously, the Hispanic electorate is galvanized by the prospect that Mr. Bustamante, a Mexican-American, could become the first Latino governor in over 100 years.
Because many Hispanics are young, many are illegal, and many do not vote, Hispanics usually represent only about 10 percent of voters. But the prospect of a possible win by Mr. Bustamante could change that even as it challenges Mr. Davis.
"Mr. Davis has claimed that Mr. Bustamante's candidacy in the recall election will help draw Hispanic supporters who will vote against the recall, but that does not seem likely," says Ms. Kaufman. "Bustamante himself has stopped campaigning against the recall and [started campaigning] for himself instead, and the Spanish-language media is pumping up the election as a way of dashing Davis and getting Bustamante in."
With this as a backdrop, both parties are out to register Hispanics in greater numbers and to be seen as the party which best represents their concerns.
For Republican front-runner Arnold Schwarzenegger, courting the Hispanic vote has meant stressing his immigrant beginnings and a history of charitable work with ethnic and inner-city children. And it has meant a playing down of his past support of Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that sought to deny government services to illegal immigrants. It has also meant trying to soft-pedal his relationship to his campaign co-chair Pete Wilson, whose name became anathema to many Latinos because of his support of Proposition 187.
For Governor Davis and Cruz Bustamante, the importance of Hispanic voters means spotlighting their support of policies that are popular with Latinos such as strong labor unions. That, in turn, gives those lobbies more clout in their each campaign.
Last week for instance, Davis told a large Latino crowd here - among them more than 1,000 union members - that former Gov. Pete Wilson's tenure was a tough time for hard-working people. "We're not going back, my friends," he said.
For Mr. Bustamante, the election permutations are even more dynamic. If current poll numbers hold, Mr. Bustamante would be California's first Latino governor in over a century. He would certainly become the nation's most visible and most powerful Hispanic politician.
Yet, despite his strength among Hispanics and his ambition to move into Davis's job, he still must ostensibly tell voters to vote "no" on the recall.
"The Latino vote poses a dilemma for Mr. Bustamante in that he needs to remind them that Davis has failed them on many fronts such as social services, crime, and immigration," says Kaufman. "That will make it hard for Latino activists and community groups to fight for Davis when they are so close to having a Latino governor as his replacement."