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Four presidential battleground states have sizable Latino populations.
Hispanics are a fast-growing segment of the population — and a very hot political property.
President Bush made serious inroads with this traditionally Democratic group. In the 2008 presidential election, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, both are bidding for their support.
The increasingly aggressive battle for Hispanic voters accelerated when President Bush first sought the White House in 2000. And it continued after his election, when, in February 2001, he traveled to Mexico and had a news conference at a ranch owned by President Vicente Fox. "Mexico is the first foreign country I have visited as president, and I intended it to be that way," he said then. "Our nations are bound together by ties of history, family, values.... "
Many Hispanics later complained that Latin America and issues such as immigration fell from the Bush administration priority list after the Sept. 11 attacks. But in 2004, President Bush won some 40 percent of the Latino vote — a major accomplishment for a Republican. Many in the party hoped it represented the beginning of a sea change.
Issues Energizing Voters
Mark Lopez of the Pew Hispanic Center, which tracks this demographic, says it is not a homogenous group. Hispanics from Mexico are distinct from those from Central America, who are different from Cuban-Americans in Florida. But Lopez adds that whatever their differences, this year there are 18 million eligible Latino voters — an increase of 2 million from four years ago.
Lopez says two things seem to have energized these voters. One is the emergence of immigration reform as a major issue.
"If you look at the protest marches in 2006, you saw a lot of people holding up signs and a lot of groups pushing for 'Let's become citizens. Let's get registered. Let's express our votes. Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,' " he says.
And there was the long and hard-fought Democratic primary battle, which included well-organized and well-funded registration drives targeting Hispanics.
Economy, War Among Top Worries
Several things threaten the inroads that Republicans have made with Latino voters under President Bush. One is that polls show Hispanics list worries about the economy and the war among their top issues.
"Hispanics, like all Americans, are heavily against the war in Iraq. And, secondly, the economy is devastating Hispanics, who by and large are lower income, more middle class, more working class," says Federico Pena, who served in Bill Clinton's Cabinet and now heads Latino outreach for the Obama campaign.
Ana Navarro, co-chairwoman of the Latino voter advisory committee for McCain, argues that Hispanics will be receptive to McCain's message on family values — and on trade — as well as the importance he places on relations with Latin America. She points to the senator's trip to Colombia and Mexico last week as an example of that.
But Navarro acknowledges that the immigration debate has hurt the image of Republicans in many Latinos' eyes.
"Let's be frank here: The immigration debate at times has been offensive and hurtful to Hispanics and immigrants. But John McCain has never once in his life engaged in negative, offensive rhetoric against any group," she says.
Navarro notes that for all of McCain's popularity with Latinos back home in Arizona, the campaign would be more than happy to match the 40 percent that President Bush captured in the last election. To that end, McCain has been running ads speaking to the patriotism of Latinos.
"My friends, I want you, the next time you're down in Washington, D.C., to go to the Vietnam War memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names. When you go to Iraq or Afghanistan today, you're going to see a whole lot of people who are of Hispanic background," McCain says in one ad.
Obama, meanwhile, has used a state-of-the-art, grass-roots organization to reach out. Outside groups have also joined in on the Internet. A video produced independently by Latino musicians and actors features an Obama jingle and a message to register to vote.
Polls show that for all the problems Obama had with Latino voters during his battle with Hillary Clinton in the primaries, he is getting their support for November.
Much of the focus will be in swing states, such as Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. Each has a sizable Latino population. And any candidate who exceeds expectations among Hispanics there could be the one who wins the White House.