Arizona's Babbitt explores the Mexican connection

For decades, Democratic politicos have paid homage to the ``three I's'' -- Ireland, Italy, and Israel -- to win votes among American ethnic groups. Will Mexico join that list as politicians court the fastest-growing ethnic population -- Hispanics -- with increasing fervor?

Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt thinks so. The Mexican-American population may be sufficiently rooted in United States society to begin taking a broader interest in Mexico, according to the governor. For Mr. Babbitt -- an emerging Democratic leader who is exploring his presidential possibilities for 1988 -- therein lies a strategy.

The Mexican connection is a natural for Babbitt. He is already one of the most popular politicians in the Southwest among Hispanic voters. And Mexico is already Babbitt's primary foreign policy interest.

In fact, he says, Mexico is the larger issue at stake in Central America now. ``What's happening in Nicaragua is nothing compared to what could happen in Mexico,'' he says.

Mexico is so neglected by other US politicians that even a little interest goes a long way.

Several weeks ago, Babbitt wrote an opinion piece for a Los Angeles newspaper accusing the Reagan administration of a cavalier neglect of Mexico. To Babbitt's surprise, two major Mexico City dailies, El Universal and Excelsior, carried the piece on their front pages.

Does this kind of publicity gain any attention north of the Rio Grande? ``Historically, Mexico has not been a big issue with US Hispanics,'' Babbitt says. ``I think that will change.''

Willie Velasquez, director of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, agrees. Tracking polls of Latino civic leaders throughout the Southwest show an increasing concern with Central America and Mexico. Among Hispanics, he adds, the opinions of community leaders are usually a good harbinger of the concerns of the community itself.

If Babbitt is right, then the issue of Mexico could help him to consolidate a base of support in the Southwestern Sunbelt, where Mexican-Americans are concentrated. About 60 percent of US Hispanics are Mexican-American. Some 80 percent of Mexican-Americans live in Texas and California.

In Arizona, Babbitt has maintained a steady popularity overall, but is especially popular with Hispanics, says Phoenix-based pollster Earl deBerge.

The governor speaks fluent Spanish, and reputedly has met and conversed with more Latino leaders in the Southwest than any other Southwestern politician.

``He understands our issues,'' says Raul Yzaguirre, director of the National Council of La Raza, a Washington, D.C.-based group which represents Hispanic interests. ``He's articulate. He's a moderate.''

Babbitt is a conservative Democrat. He alienated organized labor in 1983 when he called out the National Guard to strike-bound mining towns.

By his own description, Babbitt is among those Democrats trying to reconcile a belief in lean, efficient government with the traditional Democratic concerns for fairness and compassion. Babbitt has a prominent forum for his ideas. He is chairman of the Democratic Governors' Association and co-chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of Democratic officials rethinking party philosophy and practice.

Hispanic voters too are generally conservative Democrats, with an increasing number of Republicans among them. It is a difficult group to mobilize, however. California pollster Mervin Field notes that Hispanics account for 21 percent of the California population, but only 8 percent of the voters.

In a national Babbitt campaign, Hispanics would make up only the smallest of perhaps three target constituent groups. He would look for a larger base in the young professionals that Sen. Gary Hart's campaign made famous. He would also key his campaign to the young generation of working-class voters, the kind that have moved from the Northeast or upper Midwest to find work in the Sunbelt.

But eventually, says Babbitt, ``If the Hispanic vote turns out [at the polls], it will supplant organized labor as the mainstay of the Democratic Party.''

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