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Latino vote critical for Clinton on Super Tuesday

With stepped up campaigning, Obama seeks to make inroads into Clinton's Hispanic support.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2008

Canvassing for Clinton: From left, United Farm Workers members Rose Ponce, Carlos Morales, and Merlyn Calderon looked over addresses while canvassing for Senator Clinton in Salinas, Calif., last week.

Andy Nelson - staff

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Salinas, Calif.

Their script isn't necessary. Alberto Murillo sees the red and black shirts and the blue signs and knows they are United Farm Workers members canvassing for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In moments, he takes a "Hillary for President" sign and offers his phone number.

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Senator Clinton visited this city days earlier to accept the UFW's endorsement. The union-owned radio station airs her ads during breaks in the ranchera music pulsing in the vineyards and in taquerias here.

Señora Clinton is known.

"Latinos remember how well the economy was during Bill Clinton's time ... and having her and the backup support of her husband running this country, it only means more opportunity and better times for the people – especially Latinos," says Mr. Murillo, a substitute teacher.

Clinton's 15-year head start among Latinos has left Sen. Barack Obama scrambling to catch up since the Nevada caucus pointed to a Hispanic predilection for the former first lady. Experts say he needs to narrow that lead to do well in key primaries Tuesday and beyond.

"I think in fact [the Latino vote] could determine the outcome in California," says Gary Segura, a Latino politics expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. "My sense ... is that Clinton's lead among Latinos has gone down some, particularly because of high-profile endorsements [for Mr. Obama]."

Minority politics have taken center stage in the Democratic race after Clinton captured two-thirds of the Latino vote in Nevada's Democratic caucus and Obama took 80 percent of the black vote in South Carolina's Democratic primary.

In delegate-rich California, Latinos make up nearly one-quarter of eligible voters, far outstripping the voting clout of blacks. But the demographic picture brightens for Obama when totaling up tomorrow's 22 Democratic contests. The Super Tuesday states hold 10.9 million African-American eligible voters versus 10.5 million Hispanic eligible voters, according to an analysis of 2006 census projections.

No one knows, however, the breakdown of registered voters, the shares of disenfranchised felons, or whether Latino voters will turn out at a lower rate than blacks, as has long been the case.

Vote totals aren't everything. Obama must avoid more blowouts among Latinos because party leaders – who may be kingmakers if the race remains close – will take notice, says Louis DeSipio, Chicano studies chairman at the University of California at Irvine. "The party elites and superdelegates will start looking and say, 'Who's the one who could represent the party the best?' " he says.

A key constituency

Democratic leaders are counting on Latinos in November as a key swing vote for capturing the White House. Large Hispanic populations live in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado – states that President Bush carried by five or fewer percentage points in 2004. Since then, Hispanics have drifted toward the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.