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Both presidential candidates are pursuing Latino voters this fall. It's a group that has leaned toward Democrats for years, yet many Latinos gave strong support to the last Republican presidential candidate. George W. Bush worked hard for those votes, as we're about to hear. And John McCain also hopes to win their support. NPR's Don Gonyea continues our series on the Latino vote in 2008.
DON GONYEA: The increasingly aggressive battle for Hispanic voters accelerated when a Texas governor by the name of George W. Bush first sought the White House in 2000, and it continued after his election when, in February 2001, he traveled to Mexico and held a press conference in the bright sunshine at a ranch owned by President Vicente Fox.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Mexico is the first foreign country I have visited as president, and I intended it to be that way. Our nations are bound together by ties of history, family…
GONYEA: And while many Hispanics later complained that Latin America and issues such as immigration fell from the Bush administration priority list after 9/11, in 2004, President Bush won some 40 percent of the Latino vote - a major accomplishment for a Republican. And many in the party hoped it represented the beginning of a sea change.
Mark Lopez is with the Pew Hispanic Center, which tracks this demographic. He notes right off the bat that this is not a homogenous group. Those from Mexico are distinct from those from Central America, who are different from the Cuban-Americans in Florida. But he 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 do seem to have energized these voters. One was the emergence of immigration reform as a major issue.
Mr. MARK LOPEZ (Pew Hispanic Center): 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. It's today we march, tomorrow we vote.
GONYEA: And there was the long and hard-fought Democratic primary battle, which included well-organized and funded registration drives targeting Hispanics.
There are several things that threaten the inroads Republicans have made with Latino voters under President Bush. One is that polls show Hispanics list worries about the economy and the war as among their top issues. Federico Pena served in Bill Clinton's Cabinet and now heads Latino outreach for the Obama campaign.
Mr. FEDERICO PENA (Obama Campaign): 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.
GONYEA: Ana Navarro is co-chair of the Latino Voter Advisory Committee for John McCain. She 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 she does acknowledge that the immigration debate has hurt the image of Republicans in the eyes of many Latinos.
Ms. ANA NAVARRO (McCain Campaign): 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.
GONYEA: She 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.
(Soundbite of ad)
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): My friends, I want you to -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.
GONYEA: Obama, meanwhile, has used a state-of-the-art, grassroots organization to reach out. Outside groups have also joined in on the Internet. This video was produced independently by Latino musicians and actors.
(Soundbite of video)
Unidentified People: (Singing) …Obama, Obama…
GONYEA: Polls do 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. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.