Leaders of the African-American community fondly called Bill Clinton America's "first black president." Now, his successor in the Oval Office seems intent on becoming the first Latino one.
President Bush is wooing Hispanics with all the passion of mariachis beneath the window of that special senorita. Cinco de Mayo celebrations on the South Lawn (Mr. Clinton never did that). Weekly radio addresses in Spanish (another presidential first). Three visits with Mexico's president in just over three months.
But this is more than a cultural romance. If Mr. Bush wants to win reelection (including, next time around, the popular vote), he must increase his showing among minorities - and he has no better opportunity than with Hispanics. Karl Rove, presidential political adviser, has said that, for Republicans, winning over Latinos is "our mission and our goal."
The imperative is in the numbers. If the same percentage of minorities votes for Bush in 2004 as did in 2000, he would lose the election by 3 million votes, says Matthew Dowd, a senior consultant to the Republican National Committee. To avoid that, Republicans should aim to boost their take of the African-American vote from 9 percent in 2000 to 15 percent in 2004, and of the Hispanic vote from 35 percent to 40 percent, he says.
The census - and the politics - point to a Republican focus on Hispanics. That population grew 60 percent in the past decade, making it roughly equal with the African-American population. It is also not as solidly anti-Republican as is the black vote. And Latinos, especially the rising middle class, share some GOP values, say political analysts.
"There's room for [Republican] growth among Hispanics," says independent pollster John Zogby. "There's some fundamental conservatism on some issues. Abortion is one, school vouchers, the death penalty. For Bush to be courting, and courting early, is very smart."
But just as the demographics and politics provide the GOP with an opportunity in this group, they also present formidable challenges.
About one-third of the Hispanic population is not old enough to vote, and it takes time for new immigrants to become US citizens. Latinos are still heavily concentrated in big electoral states like Texas, California, and New York, which were already solidly for or against Bush. In Midwestern battleground states like Michigan and Missouri, the Hispanic population has grown but is not yet a weighty enough part of the electorate.
That leaves the party focusing on states where Hispanics could make a difference. Some of them - like Florida, Nevada, and Colorado - have been Republican but are in danger of turning Democratic. Whether they do could depend, in large part, on how Latinos vote. States like New Mexico, Illinois, and New Jersey also come into play.
While Latinos are much more receptive of the Republican Party than African-Americans have been, issues of class and immigration nonetheless kept them voting Democratic by a 2-to-1 margin in 2000.
"There are limits to what they [Republicans] can accomplish," says David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies here. "The fact is there are class dimensions to politics, and Hispanics are lower income than whites."
That is not discouraging the White House, which seems to have Hispanics in mind with every photo opportunity and policy statement. In Bush's opening days, he featured Hispanic families as he pushed his tax cut.
He's met with the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, Hispanic business groups, nominated 13 Hispanics to executive branch positions and one to the federal bench, and wrote Congress to extend a deadline allowing certain immigrants to become citizens.
"It's a big part of everything he does," says a senior administration official. "First of all, it comes naturally to him. He comes from a state in which Latinos are an important part of ... the state's life, and he realizes they have the same role to play in America at large."
But Democrats - also battling for the Hispanic vote - deride the administration for what they see as largely surface efforts, and wonder, for instance, why the president didn't act on the immigrant deadline before it expired.
"To date, it's mostly been symbolic - 90 percent symbolic," says Maria Echaveste, deputy chief of staff to President Clinton. On substantive issues, such as a guest-worker program being pushed by Mexico's President Vicente Fox, or wages and worker-safety concerns, "the jury is still out," she says.
But Republicans know from polling that education is the top-rated issue among Latinos. It's also the president's first priority.
"The fact that education is their No. 1 concern and is the top priority of the president will be very helpful," says Mr. Dowd, who directed polling and media planning for the Bush campaign.
Dowd is confident the president can make inroads with Latinos because he did so in Texas. When Bush first ran for governor in 1994, he captured 24 percent of the Hispanic vote. Four years later, that doubled, to between 44 and 48 percent, depending on the poll.
Today, Dowd's polling shows that Bush's job-approval ratings among Hispanics have increased by 14 or 15 percentage points since he took office - though Dowd won't say how big that support is.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor