Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Woo Latinos

Democratic presidential candidates on Sunday addressed a conference of Latino elected officials in Orlando, Fla. Invitations to Republican candidates to address the group on Friday were declined by all but one.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Concerns over terrorism including the recent events in Great Britain made their way into the annual conference of the National Association Of Latino Elected And Appointed Officials. Seven of the Democratic presidential contenders address the gathering yesterday in Orlando, Florida. Invitations to Republican candidates to address the group on Friday were declined by all but one -Congressman Duncan Hunter of California.

NPR's Audie Cornish is in Orlando. Audie, what were people saying about the lack of significant Republican participation?

AUDIE CORNISH: Well, lots of people express disappointment and found that this - or thought that this was a lost opportunity for the GOP. I spoke to the outgoing president of the organization NALEO. His name is John Bueno and he is a Republican.

Mr. JOHN BUENO (President, National Association Of Latino Elected And Appointed Officials): The Latino voters are getting smarter, they're getting more organized and there's going to be repercussions, I think, coming form the Latino voters for elected official that are not listening to them.

CORNISH: Bueno said that President Bush appeared at their conference in 2004 and made a lot of in routes with the Latino community, eventually capturing around 40 percent or more of the vote. And he said that he felt that the president's efforts with the Latino community could be eroding with this round of presidential candidates.

HANSEN: Of the candidates who did show up, what approach did they take with this audience? Who stood out?

CORNISH: Well, you didn't hear a lot of people trying to speak Spanish. Ohio Congressman Kucinich read a lengthy sort of statement in Spanish. And you heard the usual suspect, Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who was in the Peace Corps were very comfortable, joking around in Spanish as of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson who's mother is of Mexican heritage and who is a favorite with the crowd.

All of the Democrats made a point to say how disappointed the were with the end of the debate of the immigration reform bill. And some took advantage of the moment to try and point the finger at Republicans. Here's Delaware Senator Joe Biden.

Senator Joe Biden (Democrat, Delaware): Immigration should be viewed through the prism of U.S. interest and American values, not what's it become. It's become a race to the bottom. Who can, out there, be the most anti-Hispanic?

HANSEN: Other than immigration, Audie, what other issues were the candidates asked about?

CORNISH: Well, while immigration was at the top of the list - the first question asked for each candidate - it certainly wasn't where the most time was spent. The very next important issue was probably the war in Iraq and everybody talked about leaving Iraq in one way or another.

Another issue that there was a lot of time devoted to was also the issue of terrorism, specifically in lieu of the foiled car bomb attack in London this past week. Here's Senator Hillary Clinton.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): President Bush invites President Cheney and their administration have alienated the world. I will begin to repair those relationships and to build cooperation so that we can go after the terrorist jointly because that's in the world's interest as well as America's interest.

CORNISH: And there was also more discussion about healthcare and education and specifically sort of disparities between Latinos and the general population on those issues.

HANSEN: Put it in some context for us, Audie. How important is the Latino vote to Democrats in the 2008 race?

CORNISH: Well, several states with huge numbers of Latino voters have moved up their primaries - notably Nevada in California and now even Florida, which, I think, the date now is the 29th. And so, these are states where the Latino population is at least a little more than 10 percent of the total electorate.

Now, if the races are really tight, these could be very important votes and very important swing votes. And I think the Democrats who are very aggressive at this conference were really trying to pick up Latinos who they felt could be disappointed with some of the Republican stances on immigration or the war for that matter.

According to a report by NALEO - the organization that was running the conference - more than 80 percent of the Latino population could end up casting their vote by February 5th. And so, there's going to be a lot of people here who, at the very important part of the primary season could be very influential.

HANSEN: NPR's Audie Cornish in Orlando Florida. Audie, thanks very much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

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