Obama Renews Efforts to Win Over Hispanics

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has struggled to win over Hispanic voters who know and like his opponent Hillary Clinton. Now, as Obama looks forward to Sunday's Puerto Rico primary, and possibly the general election, his campaign is redoubling its efforts to connect with the Hispanic community.

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Puerto Rico's primary is on Sunday, and the biggest question is how well will Barack Obama do with Hispanic voters there? During the primary season, Latinos have generally supported Hillary Clinton over Obama by margins of two-to-one. Obama needs to figure out how to reach those voters if he wants to do well in Western states in the general election.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: Barack Obama may be expecting to lose the Puerto Rico primary, but he's taking the opportunity to make sure voters there know a little something about him.

(Soundbite of TV political ad)

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): (Spanish spoken)

JAFFE: I was born on an island, he says in this ad, referring to his home state of Hawaii. So I understand, he continues, that food, gasoline, everything costs more. And his implicit message is, hey look, I can speak a little Spanish. Obama has been an unknown quantity for many Latino voters, especially compared to Hillary Clinton, wife of a popular former president. So on a recent campaign stop in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Obama supporter Bill Richardson, the nation's only Hispanic governor, introduced Obama as someone who was very much like another young presidential candidate the crowd remember fondly.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): (Spanish Spoken) John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

JAFFE: New Mexico is one of the states the Democrats have their eyes on. John Kerry lost there in 2004 by less than 1 percent. Democrats also lost Colorado and Nevada by slim margins. And if Kerry had come out ahead in those three states, he would have won the White House. All of them have large Latino electorates that are predominantly Democratic, and Obama visited all of them this week.

Professor ROBERTO SURO (University of Southern California; Founder, Pew Hispanic Center): Those three states, every vote will be fought for.

JAFFE: Says Roberto Suro, a professor at the University of Southern California and the founder of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Prof. SURO: Obama's going to have some very clear work to do in the Hispanic electorate, as he will with rural blue-collar whites.

JAFFE: In socioeconomic terms, says Suro, the two groups have a lot in common.

Prof. SURO: And like blue-collared whites, blue-collared Latinos did not seem to get energized by the change message that the Obama campaign was based on.

JAFFE: This isn't lost on the Obama campaign. They have an extensive, though still developing plan to reach out to Latino voters. It includes building relationships with Spanish language media, spending heavily in swing states with large Latino populations, and targeting Spanish speakers in the campaigns voter registration drive. They're also relying heavily on Hispanic surrogates, like Governor Richardson. One of them is Tino Cuellar, a law professor at Stanford.

Professor TINO CUELLAR (Law, Stanford): Having surrogates open that door is extremely important, and then having the campaign follow through and make sure that Latinos understand that this is a campaign that cares profoundly about their concerns and includes them in its decision making process.

JAFFE: Still, John McCain is hoping to peel off a significant percentage of Hispanic voters, just as President Bush did four years ago. Ana Navarro is the national co-chair of the McCain Campaign's Hispanic Advisory Board. She says it's not just McCain's moderate stance on immigration that appeals to Latinos.

Ms. ANA NAVARRO (Co-chair, McCain Campaign's Hispanic Advisory Board): John McCain shares values with the Hispanic and Latino community, values of strong families, values of service to country of patriotism. So what we need to do is get the Latino community on a national basis to get to know him the way the people in Arizona do.

JAFFE: But Latinos are already starting to think better of Barack Obama. A recent Gallup poll shows that nationwide, Hispanic Democrats now prefer him to Hillary Clinton by a margin of seven points. The aim of the Obama campaign is to make sure they prefer him to John McCain, and by a much wider margin come November.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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