The Hispanic 'Leaven'

Republicans gearing up for next year's elections may still feel buoyed by retaining control of both houses of Congress last year. But few party planners would deny that some clouds hang over continued GOP ascendancy.

The darkest may be the Republicans' ebbing favor among Hispanic voters. With Hispanics projected to make up 30 percent of the voting-age US population by the year 2000 - and an even higher percentage in key electoral states like Florida and California - some GOP planners have furrowed brows.

One of the party's more experienced strategists, Californian Stuart Spencer, predicts "political suicide" if Republicans don't make Latin voters more welcome.

Thus the stage is set for an interesting political evolution. The party's recent push to restrict immigration, roll back affirmative action, and oppose bilingualism is tailor-made to offend many Hispanics. President Clinton's surprisingly good showing among Florida's Cuban-Americans last year sprang, at least partly, from the GOP's anti-immigrant image. In other years, the party's virulent anticommunism had been enough to carry Florida's large Spanish-speaking community.

In California and the Southwest, the issues, and the voters, are somewhat different. Golden State Gov. Pete Wilson got reelected campaigning against providing health care, education, and other public services to illegal immigrants. He has also been a tireless foe of affirmative action for Latinos or blacks in state hiring and college admissions policies. Now some Republicans, including Mr. Spencer, worry that the state's legions of Hispanic voters - mostly Mexican-American and low-income - will equate Wilson's stands with party philosophy and move even more tightly into the Democrats' camp.

Will Republicans be able to adjust their appeal in order to attract more Hispanics? Family issues, tough stands on crime, even the antiabortion plank - all can play well with often strongly traditionalist Hispanics. And people of Latin background are diverse. Many are moving into the middle class; some have made fortunes. GOP small-government, tax-cut pitches resonate here.

The Democrats, however, are still perceived as more concerned about the poor. They are also perceived as more friendly toward immigrants, more willing to extend public aid, and more appreciative of "multiculturalism." At the same time, Democrats - and particularly "new Democrats" like the president - are in mid-course of orienting their party toward smaller government and fiscal responsibility.

The country's burgeoning - and increasingly politically aware - Hispanic minority will be a leavening agent for both parties in the 21st century.

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