Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Click enlarge for details.
Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations. Lindsay Mangum/NPR
Rick Scibelli/Getty Images
President Bush greets supporters in New Mexico in 2004. Many of the state's Hispanic voters, though registered Democrats, helped Bush win that state.
President Bush greets supporters in New Mexico in 2004. Many of the state's Hispanic voters, though registered Democrats, helped Bush win that state. Part of that vote was supporting the president in a time of war. Rick Scibelli/Getty Images
As the presidential candidates court the Latino vote, they are looking to New Mexico.
Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of the state's electorate. While they are largely registered Democrats, many crossed party lines in 2004 to help President Bush win that state. Part of that vote was supporting the president in a time of war.
A Military Legacy
New Mexico has four military bases. Between active duty and the National Guard, it can seem like just about everyone here has served in the military or has a family member who has.
Take Antonio Gandara Martinez, a 23-year-old student at the University of New Mexico. He comes from three generations of military service.
"My grandfather, Jake Martinez, was [in the Army] Air Corps in World War II. And my Grandpa Gandy, on my mom's side, was fighting in Okinawa, I believe," says Gandara Martinez. "A long history, it goes back three generations now ... ending with my brother, who's a Marine."
He adds that both his older brother and mother have done tours in Iraq, and his father served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.
Gandara Martinez says he believed the Bush administration when it first said there was a connection between Iraq and the Sept. 11 attacks. But as that rationale has fallen apart, so has his faith in the war.
"I felt betrayed," he says. "And I think a lot of Hispanics got disillusioned."
The Personal Impact Of War
A poll for the nonpartisan Latino Policy Coalition found last year that two-thirds of Hispanic voters believed going to war with Iraq was a mistake.
That is why Gandara Martinez joined the College Democrats at the University of New Mexico. He now supports Barack Obama because the candidate considers the war in Iraq a mistake. He hears others on campus defend the war and says Iraq is a topic that comes up all the time.
"This is not an abstract issue for the Hispanic community, and certainly not an abstract issue in New Mexico," says political science professor Christine Sierra, also at the University of New Mexico.
Sierra says that while Hispanics were generally early supporters of the Iraq war, she can understand why polls show a majority turned against it, even before the rest of the country.
"When you add class, rural areas, race and ethnicity to who serves in the wars, folks from certain groups are paying disproportionately in terms of their lives or sacrifices," she says.
The Latino Policy Coalition poll found nearly half of Hispanic voters said they had a family member or close friend serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The community's large, extended families likely make the war's impact greater. Yet those very family connections to the military could also help John McCain.
A Focus On The Future
Two mornings a week, a mariachi band plays in the lobby of Albuquerque's Veterans Affairs Medical Center. New Mexico is full of Hispanic veterans, many older and conservative – even though they may be registered as Democrats. Republican activists say McCain's military service resonates with this group.
"In the Hispanic culture, family comes first," says Dan Garza. "The military sort of falls right into that. It's a family."
Garza heads New Mexico's Republican National Hispanic Assembly. He says while some Hispanics may be uneasy about the Iraq war, they also are uneasy about a quick U.S. pullout. Garza believes many Hispanics, not just Republicans, trust McCain more to find the right time and way to withdraw.
"My father has voted Democrat his whole life. He's 79 years old, God bless him," says Garza. "He has told me that he will probably vote for McCain."
In his first general election television advertisement, McCain played up his military experience while seeming to acknowledge opposition to the Iraq war.
"I hate war," McCain says in the ad. "And I know how terrible its costs are. I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe."
Nonetheless, for a senator from Arizona who is supposed to be the favorite son of the Southwest, McCain may have to work harder than he had hoped to win over New Mexico's Hispanic voters. And Iraq is a topic he will likely keep pushing.