Their script isn't necessary. Alberto Murillo sees the red and black shirts and the blue signs and knows they are United Farm Workers members canvassing for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. In moments, he takes a "Hillary for President" sign and offers his phone number.
Senator Clinton visited this city days earlier to accept the UFW's endorsement. The union-owned radio station airs her ads during breaks in the ranchera music pulsing in the vineyards and in taquerias here.
Señora Clinton is known.
"Latinos remember how well the economy was during Bill Clinton's time ... and having her and the backup support of her husband running this country, it only means more opportunity and better times for the people – especially Latinos," says Mr. Murillo, a substitute teacher.
Clinton's 15-year head start among Latinos has left Sen. Barack Obama scrambling to catch up since the Nevada caucus pointed to a Hispanic predilection for the former first lady. Experts say he needs to narrow that lead to do well in key primaries Tuesday and beyond.
"I think in fact [the Latino vote] could determine the outcome in California," says Gary Segura, a Latino politics expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. "My sense ... is that Clinton's lead among Latinos has gone down some, particularly because of high-profile endorsements [for Mr. Obama]."
Minority politics have taken center stage in the Democratic race after Clinton captured two-thirds of the Latino vote in Nevada's Democratic caucus and Obama took 80 percent of the black vote in South Carolina's Democratic primary.
In delegate-rich California, Latinos make up nearly one-quarter of eligible voters, far outstripping the voting clout of blacks. But the demographic picture brightens for Obama when totaling up tomorrow's 22 Democratic contests. The Super Tuesday states hold 10.9 million African-American eligible voters versus 10.5 million Hispanic eligible voters, according to an analysis of 2006 census projections.
No one knows, however, the breakdown of registered voters, the shares of disenfranchised felons, or whether Latino voters will turn out at a lower rate than blacks, as has long been the case.
Vote totals aren't everything. Obama must avoid more blowouts among Latinos because party leaders – who may be kingmakers if the race remains close – will take notice, says Louis DeSipio, Chicano studies chairman at the University of California at Irvine. "The party elites and superdelegates will start looking and say, 'Who's the one who could represent the party the best?' " he says.
A key constituency
Democratic leaders are counting on Latinos in November as a key swing vote for capturing the White House. Large Hispanic populations live in New Mexico, Florida, Nevada, and Colorado – states that President Bush carried by five or fewer percentage points in 2004. Since then, Hispanics have drifted toward the Democratic Party, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
It's not clear what's behind that shift, says Pew's Richard Fry. Heated immigration rhetoric from Republican quarters is the conventional wisdom, but Latinos consistently rank jobs and education over immigration as top issues.
Hispanic groups say the immigration debate has accelerated Latino voter registration and applications for citizenship in the past couple of years. Since the 2006 election, some 2 million new Latino voters will be registered by November, says Dr. DeSipio.
Hoping to tap that energy, Obama is talking up his support for giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants – a stance Clinton backed off from under fire.
But Clinton's advantage, experts say, hasn't been so much policy as personal.
Clinton received enormous Spanish-language TV coverage in Nevada and California when she walked the streets of a Latino neighborhood in Las Vegas with a local rising political star.
"There was just a sea of people following her going door to door. It was a powerful image and message of her getting out there," says Luis Valera with the Las Vegas Latin Chamber of Commerce. "Obama could have done that just as easily."
Mr. Valera and other Latino observers see signs of a course correction within the Obama camp. Obama came to East Los Angeles last week to stump in the Hispanic community. He has finally joined Clinton on the Spanish-language airwaves with new ads and has sat for interviews with Spanish-language media.
Major endorsements have followed, including from La Opinion, the leading Spanish-language newspaper in the US, and from Maria Elena Durazo, a powerful Los Angeles union leader. In Salinas, his campaign highlighted local endorsements, including from a popular high school teacher, as a way to counter some of Clinton's earlier publicity.
But Clinton beat Obama to many top leaders, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and activist Dolores Huerta, a figure so revered that Clinton has actually held rallies at schools named after her.
Both are using Spanish-speaking volunteers to phone voters on weeknights and to canvass neighborhoods on weekends. For Obama's camp, it's a chance to introduce their candidate and level the playing field against their rivals.
"What they have is name recognition," says Juan Francisco Contreras, a regional coordinator for Obama in Oakland. "Over the last few months, we have seen as the senator's message gets out … a lot of people coming our way."
In a few cases, just calling up and speaking Spanish has won support, he says. The campaign is finding the most success with younger Hispanics.
"There may be not enough time, but it can chip away at the Clinton lead," says DeSipio of Obama's revamped outreach effort. As recently as Jan. 22, a Field poll put Clinton up 59 percent to 19 percent over Obama among California Latinos.
Press reports have buzzed about racism as a possible role in the lopsided support for Clinton. Research led by Paula McClain at Duke University has found that Latino immigrants in the South tend to identify most with whites and the least with blacks. That immigrant group is relatively new and is moving into a heavily black region where the two groups compete for low-skill jobs.
"I don't dispute her findings. But it's a big jump from saying that's true to saying Hispanics and blacks have a deep tension, or Hispanics won't vote for African-Americans," says Dr. Segura.
When broaching the subject, nearly every Latino expert and ordinary citizen alike rattled off a list of black politicians who have won strong support from Latino voters, including former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and Obama himself.