Latinos Courted by Democrats Vying for President

Democratic presidential candidates descended on the National Association of Latino Elected Officials conference in Florida, courting voters disaffected by the immigration debate in Washington. In 2004, President Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his re-election bid. But during last year's mid-term elections, there was a decided shift among Latinos, away from the Republicans.

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Over the weekend in Florida, Democratic presidential candidates descended on NALEO conference - that's the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. The candidates were courting voters disaffected by the immigration debate in Washington. In 2004, President Bush won more than 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in his reelection bid. But during last year's mid term elections, there was a decided shift among Latinos away from the Republicans, and Democrats hope that trend will continue in 2008.

NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

(Soundbite of music)

AUDIE CORNISH: Hispanic officials from school board members to congressman gathered in Orlando for their annual conference, where organizers touted the political strength of the Latin community. States like Florida, California and Nevada with big numbers of Latino voters have a prominent place in the upcoming primaries, so presidential candidates are working hard to make inroads now.

Representative DENNIS KUCINICH (Democrat, Ohio; Presidential Candidate): As a means of demonstrating to you my commitment to making sure that Spanish is something that is promoted in our schools somos todos.

CORNISH: Congressman Dennis Kucinich made some his remarks in Spanish, but other candidates were content to show their interest by condemning the immigration debate in Washington. Here's New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and Senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): I want…

(Soundbite of applause)

Gov. RICHARDSON: …the xenophobes on both parties to recognize that this is a human rights issue.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): What I was most disturbed about was an ugly undertone that crept into the debate this year that was absent, seemingly, last year. And it indicates the grid which politics of fear overcame the politics of hope.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Democratic Presidential Candidate): Immigration preview should be viewed through the prism of U.S. interest in American values not what it's become. It's become a race to the bottom. Who can, out there, be the most anti-Hispanic. That's what's happening.

CORNISH: They were joined by Senators Hillary Clinton and Chris Dodd and former Senator John Edwards in addressing the group. Republican presidential candidates, on the other hand, were mostly a no-show. Every one of them declined to attend, except for California Congressman Duncan Hunter. Democrats were free to attack the Republican position on a variety of issues and pick up new votes along the way, says Dallas Democrat Rafael Anchia of the NALEO Education Fund.

Mr. RAFAEL ANCHIA (Democrat, Dallas): I would submit that a lot of the good will that George W. Bush was able to gin up during his prior runs for president has been eroded with the lack of participation and inclusion of Latino issues as part of the GOP platform and debate. And the hard line on immigration, I suspect, will come back to haunt to GOP with the Latino community in the future.

CORNISH: But (unintelligible) NALEO disagreed.

Mr. JOHN BUENO (President, NALEO): Well, I mean, for immigration, it wasn't just Republicans. I mean, it had Democrats - it was actually a bipartisan failure, I feel. A little bit more on the Republican side, yes, but it was definitely bipartisan.

CORNISH: John Bueno is the outgoing president of the organization, and a Republican for Michigan. He thinks the GOP presidential candidates missed an important opportunity.

Mr. BUENO: Not being at this type of a conference was a big mistake. Can it be overcome by the Republican Party? I think it can be. But they're going to have to work harder to get the trust back that they do care about what we think and what we feel about. Will it happen? Well, that's to be seen.

CORNISH: Especially with voters like Pete Garrido(ph) of Florida, who may have already made up his mind.

Mr. PETE GARRIDO (Resident, Florida): The fact that they're not here and they don't want to hear the concerns of the Latino people whether they're Republican or Democrats, we all have issues and they should be here to listen to our concerns. And the fact that they bypass this event shows me that they really don't care about what we feel.

CORNISH: Frank Guerra, a former media consultant for President Bush, says Republican presidential candidates need to walk a fine line while campaigning through states with large Latino electorates.

Mr. FRANK GUERRA (CEO, Guerra DeBerry Coody, San Antonio, Texas): They understand that they have to appeal to some folks important in the primary process who feel very strongly about immigration in one direction, but they also know that when they move to the general election and they're trying to capture the Hispanic vote, they cannot be put in a position where they have alienated that population.

CORNISH: As a candidate in 1980, Ronald Reagan said Latinos are Republicans, they just don't know it yet. He went on to take more than 30 percent of the Hispanic vote. President George W. Bush did even better in his two runs for president. But if Republicans get the lion's share of the blame for the collapse of the immigration bill, they may be hard-pressed to improve their showing for 2008.

Audie Cornish, NPR News.

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