At a presidential campaign breakfast in the heavily Hispanic Rio Grande Valley last week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson concluded a rousing speech focusing on the area's poor farm workers with a request for local officials ``who support us'' to join him at the podium. Although a number of Hispanic elected officials had willingly stood earlier in the breakfast upon their introduction to the crowd, few rushed to join Mr. Jackson at the rostrum.
The potentially embarrassing moment was salvaged after Jackson expanded his invitation to include several campaign workers, including former New Mexico Gov. Tony Anaya and a group of local longshoremen's union officials.
But the scene demonstrates the difficulties Jackson faces as he seeks to attract Hispanic voters. For many Hispanics here, the Jackson campaign is seen as too narrowly focused on the poor to entice their support.
Jackson campaign officials say Hispanics can empathize with their candidate as he battles claims that the country is not ready to elect a black president. They also say his message of ``empowering the poor'' and providing them their ``fair share'' of the nation's wealth is especially meaningful to Hispanics.
``Many Hispanics in this area of the country can relate to a time when they were told that Hispanics couldn't win,'' says Armando Guti'errez, Jackson's Texas campaign manager. ``In our lifetime we have heard it over and over again.''
Adds Governor Anaya, ``This campaign says, if Jesse Jackson, black, can be elected, then Jos'e Mart'inez, Hispanic, can be elected.'' He also says the Jackson campaign is broad enough to ``keep the Hispanic middle class from being turned off by that appeal to the poor. Many Hispanics remember that they came from there.''
Yet while many Hispanic officials here say they do indeed empathize with Jackson, they add that it does not necessarily mean they will support him. Nor, they add, do they believe empathy will translate into large numbers of Hispanic votes.
``I share [Jackson's] agenda point by point,'' says Tony Zavaleta, a Brownsville, Texas, councilman who attended Jackson's breakfast but did not stand when supporters were called forward. ``Do you want the truth? I want to support a winner. Hispanic elected officials are people who have beaten the odds, and by and large they're going to put their money on a candidate that can win.''
Another valley politician, Juan Hinojosa, a state representative from McAllen, says that ``a lot of Mexican-Americans do empathize with [Jackson's] background and the issues he's pushing. ... But to say from there that Hispanics are going to coalesce behind him, that's incorrect.''
One important problem the Jackson campaign has, according to Mr. Hinojosa, is that it is ``not broad enough.'' Jackson, he says, is liked among farm workers and in the valley's colonias - unincorporated subdivisions with few services that are often the bottom rung of land ownership for immigrating Mexicans - ``but that support does not necessarily translate into votes.''
The Jackson campaign is working to broaden its appeal, and in part because of that effort it is winning new respect and recognition. Increasingly there is talk that Jackson is likely to win more - perhaps decidedly more - than the 465, or about 12 percent, of the Democratic convention delegates he won in 1984. ``There's no question he'll do better with Hispanics in '88 than he did in '84,'' says Rub'en Bonilla, a prominent Hispanic leader from Corpus Christi.
Mr. Guti'errez, who is originally from Texas and has been a Jackson policy adviser and speech writer since June, says the fact he is Hispanic ``was not raised'' when a Texas manager was being considered. But he said that it ``was a factor in a sense: It's important for us to demonstrate this is not a `black' campaign.''
It is also important, he says, that Hispanic voters see that the Jackson campaign recognizes that Hispanics are ``not monolithic.'' There are only a handful of ``Hispanic'' issues, he says - bilingual education, the English-only movement, and, to some extent, immigration - while the most important issues to Hispanic voters, he adds, are the same ones uppermost in many voters' estimation: economic development, education, and health care. ``We certainly want to reflect that in our campaign,'' Guti'errez says.
A November Texas Poll showed Jackson the first choice in a primary vote with 21 percent of Hispanics, compared with 11 percent of Anglos and 63 percent of blacks.
But the fruits of that broadening effort were not readily apparent here last week as the spotlight fell on south Texas for a Democratic presidential debate. (Democrats are spending so much time here because in the state's March 8 Super Tuesday primary, south Texas is expected to deliver more Democratic votes than Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio - three of the nation's 10 largest cities - combined.)
``If Jesse Jackson wants to embrace all the Hispanics, he's going to have to do more than go to the farm workers,'' says Gilbert Cardenas, an economist at Pan American University in Edinburg, Texas. While in the valley Jackson visited broccoli fields where workers had complained of lacking sanitary facilities.
A potential problem for Jackson is that the Hispanic voters here most likely to favor him are the poor and less educated; but that group is generally more influenced by the endorsements of their local political leaders, and Hispanic officials here are not crowding onto the Jackson bandwagon.
Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, one of the first to staff the valley, is popular. Former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and US Rep. Richard Gephardt have supporters among Hispanic officials, and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. is picking up some support.
Another problem for Jackson is that the state's highly active community-based organizations such as Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio and Valley Interfaith in south Texas, which have repeatedly proved their ability to deliver votes on initiatives of interest to poor Hispanics, are ``radically nonpartisan,'' according to Amalia Lerma, who co-chairs Valley Interfaith.
Jackson was one of several Democratic candidates who met with the organizations' leaders last week. He says he told them that in addition to doing their own grass-roots work, they should also ``begin taking part in coalitions.'' When that showed no signs of swaying their nonpartisan policy, ``my only other words to them were, `If you cannot endorse me, at least bless me.'''