One Republican and seven Democratic presidential candidates passed through this Texas Gulf Coast city last week, looking not for sun and sand, but Hispanic votes. By coming here to address the nation's largest Hispanic organization, the eight hopefuls were looking not only to garner favor with the fastest growing minority group in the United States, but to make inroads in Texas, a big state that has become all the more important with the advent of the South's ``Super Tuesday'' primary next March.
In four days of speeches that wrapped up Sunday, the candidates spoke to more than 3,000 delegates of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) on family, jobs, immigration reform, minority opportunity, and relations with Latin America - all issues considered important in wooing the Hispanics.
The seven Democrats were former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, US Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon. The only Republican candidate addressing the group was US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York.
The absence of other Republican hopefuls, all of whom had been invited, as well as any senior officials of the Reagan administration, was considered by a number of LULAC leaders a slap in the face, and a mistake for the 1988 elections.
``I think the Republicans are sending the wrong message to Hispanic Americans,'' said president Oscar Moran, who two years ago was elected LULAC's first Republican president. ``They're saying, `We want your votes, but we're not ready to come to you yet.'''
Added former league president Tony Bonilla, ``[Republicans] have not become visionary enough to recognize that not all Hispanics are Democrats.'' Hispanics' growing ``economic diversity'' is leading to greater political independence, he said, ``but the Republicans will not benefit from that if they don't bother to come to us to make their views known.''
That point was reinforced when delegates gave Mr. Kemp one of the more enthusiastic ovations accorded a candidate, following his speech on equal opportunity and free enterprise. Saying that ``somewhere along the way my party stumbled,'' Kemp said he wanted to see the Republicans ``taking risks to open our doors,'' to be ``not a Grand Old Party, but a Growth and Opportunity Party.''
The conclave of mostly middle-class Hispanics - and mostly Mexican-Americans, with lesser representation of the nation's Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans - seemed pleased with the attention paid them by Democratic candidates, and particularly with the Spanish spoken by Governors Dukakis and Babbitt. In a straw poll taken Saturday, delegates favored Babbitt and Dukakis, with 31 percent and 29 percent respectively, followed by Mr. Jackson with 18 percent.
But as one delegate from Lubbock, Texas, said, ``Speaking another language is fine, but what matters are their views on issues.''
San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros, in a Friday evening address, told the convention it is ``not enough for candidates to come and tell you what we must do.'' LULAC must join with the nation's Hispanic leadership, he said, ``to tell [the candidates], `This is what we must have.'''
To that end, Mr. Cisneros announced that a group of perhaps 50 of the nation's Hispanic leaders would meet later this summer to work up a common agenda to give Hispanics across the country a ``common voice'' in the campaign.
Among the points he suggested be addressed are education funding, urban aid, bilingual education, and the emergence of a permanent underclass in the US. He said the next presidential Cabinet should contain ``at least one ... Hispanic,'' and the next president should actively oppose the English-only movement.
On Sunday, Jorge Rodriguez, special assistant to Mr. Moran, said LULAC was suggesting that the leadership conference take place rather in early spring, before the primaries, and in San Antonio.
Yet with Hispanics likely to make up about 4 percent of the vote in the general election, it is uncertain how responsive candidates would be to such demands. As Willie Velasquez, president of San Antonio's Southwest Voter Registration/Education Project noted, the importance of Hispanics is in their concentration, and especially in Texas, California, and Florida.
Mr. Velasquez said Hispanics made up nearly one-quarter of the Texas Democratic primary vote in May 1986, a figure that helps explain the strong showing here by 1988 Democratic contenders.
The fact that less than 2 percent of Texas Hispanics registered to vote participated in the Republican primary may also explain why Kemp was alone among Republicans to appear before LULAC.
Still, Velasquez said he was surprised the Republicans ``ignored this convention.'' He said that while Hispanics still tend to vote heavily Democratic, they are increasingly willing to consider a Republican. He pointed out that Lyndon Johnson attracted 92 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1964, but Walter Mondale garnered only 73 percent 20 years later.
The poor Republican response to LULAC was a ``personal disappointment'' to Moran, who two years ago was elected as the organization's first Republican leader.