In Nevada, a first test of Latinos' leanings in '08 race

The immigration debate has rattled many and may tip them toward the Democrats. But which one?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Precaucus debate: Barack Obama (l.), Hillary Rodham Clinton, and John Edwards squared off Tuesday in Las Vegas.
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    Oscar Colmenares, a native of Mexico, became a US citizen and a registered voter the same day in Las Vegas. Will he and other Latinos swing the ’08 election? Nevada’s caucuses Saturday may be a first test.
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– Nostalgia drove Armando Kihuen, a Latino immigrant, to come hear former President Bill Clinton stump for his wife in the days before the Nevada caucuses.

"During the Clinton administration everyone was happy economically and peacefully living in this country," says Mr. Kihuen, who came to the US as a farm laborer in 1984 and now teaches middle-school science. "The Latinos had peace of mind [and] they remember that."

It's a common refrain here among Latinos, who are rattled by the rhetoric in the national immigration debate. They now have an opportunity to respond in large numbers with their votes, starting with Saturday's contest in Nevada.

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Latino nostalgia for a less rancorous, more prosperous time benefits Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic nomination race and could also hurt Republican chances of winning the general election in November, say experts.

"What the US is experiencing in 2008 is not really that different than what California experienced in 1994 to 1997, which is a highly polarized environment around Latinos and immigration – and Latinos responded," says Gary Segura, a political scientist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

In California, then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R) pushed an anti-immigration measure that sparked a Latino backlash at the polls against the GOP. Most of the Republican presidential hopefuls talk tough on illegal immigration, emphasizing border security and "no amnesty" over paths to citizenship and access to some government services. "The GOP presidential field is picking up where Pete Wilson left off," says Dr. Segura.

Until 2006, Republicans under President Bush were eroding Democrats' edge among Hispanic voters. Now some 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats or lean that way, while only 23 percent break Republican – a gap not seen since 1999, according to a report last month by the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Hispanics could be a key swing vote in November because they are a large share of eligible voters in New Mexico (37 percent), Florida (14 percent), Colorado (12 percent), and Nevada (12 percent) – states President Bush won by fewer than five percentage points in '04, the report notes.

But it's not certain that Hispanic voters, who tend to be younger and less politically engaged, will turn out in force in Nevada or elsewhere. Experts and pollsters are generally shying away from any forecasts about the unprecedented caucuses here.

Both Democratic frontrunners are airing Spanish-language ads. The Clinton camp boasts a long list of Latino endorsements, most recently Cesar Chavez's brother. And Mrs. Clinton has spent more time in Hispanic neighborhoods here, says Eddie Escobedo, publisher of El Mundo, a local newspaper endorsing Clinton.

"Hillary Clinton has been in my neighborhood talking to the head of households of different homes. She has been at the Mexican restaurant having a roundtable," says Mr. Escobedo. "[Sen. Barack] Obama has not gone out to the Latinos."

Mr. Obama, however, won an endorsement from the Culinary Workers Union, an organization with 60,000 members, 45 percent of whom are Hispanic. At a rally Sunday, Obama joined union members in the chant, "Sí, se puede," which means "Yes, we can."

"You've got the leadership endorsements [for Clinton] on the one hand and the union machine [for Obama] on the other, and it's going to be really interesting to see which of these is the most effective," says Roberto Suro, former head of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Polling of Nevada's Latinos back in July by the University of Washington found Clinton far ahead of Obama, who had low name recognition. Such early polls came before Nevadans really engaged in the race, says an Obama spokesperson, who adds that the campaign targeted its outreach to those Latinos most likely to vote.

After a Democratic debate Tuesday night in Las Vegas, which had been billed as focusing on minority issues, Latino leaders – and some candidates – expressed frustration that only cursory attention was paid to topics important to minority groups, such as jobs, education, and immigration.

John Edwards fielded the one question on immigration, outlining reform policies that all three candidates espouse and agreeing that learning English ought to be part of any path to citizenship.

"It's difficult to know at this point what the differences are in their immigration proposals," says Matt Barreto, a political scientist at the University of Washington, who watched the debate on television. "The Democrats don't want to get into the details of their immigration plan for fear it will backfire with other segments of the electorate."

Clinton has risked negative attention at times in an effort to side with Latino voters, particularly during her initial support for driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, as well as her repudiation of the term "illegals" when she said recently, "no woman is illegal."

At a town-hall meeting Sunday in Pahrump, Nev., Obama fielded a pointed question on immigration. He argued for beefing up border security and cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers – drawing applause. He then drew cheers from different people when he discounted the idea of deporting all illegal immigrants.

One Republican candidate likely to interest many Latino voters is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an architect of last year's failed bid in Congress to enact an immigration reform bill – which included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the US. Latinos may not be able to help him win the GOP nomination, because they aren't a big enough share of Republican voters to sway the primary outcomes, but he may attract Hispanic support in the general election if he becomes the GOP nominee.

"If McCain is the nominee, that could scramble that whole equation," says Mr. Suro.

The only Republican to devote much time in Nevada ahead of Tuesday's Michigan primary was Ron Paul, who has gained some traction here on immigration. He hosted a meeting in Las Vegas Tuesday on the topic, and his hard-line stance against birthright citizenship cheered the crowd.

Dr. Paul rejects the idea that the Republican Party stands to lose ground among Hispanics. "We just heard from some Hispanics in this crowd, and they are very much with us on this," he says.

Cassandra O'Nell, a Hispanic who came to see Paul, wants tougher government action on illegal immigration. "There is a lot of animosity now toward people of Hispanic heritage, and I think a lot of that is caused by the government refusing to enforce the [immigration] laws," she says.

Her view may not represent the majority position in the Latino community, however. Republicans will be disappointed if they hope to segment Latino citizens from noncitizen immigrants, says Segura, given Latino citizens' close – often familial – relationships with newcomers.

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