Iraq War Is Key Election Issue For N.M. Hispanics Forty percent of New Mexico's voters are Hispanic, a demographic both heavily Democratic and connected to the military. In 2004, Hispanics swung right to help President Bush win the state in a time of war. This year, Iraq remains a central issue in the swing state.
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Iraq War Is Key Election Issue For N.M. Hispanics

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Iraq War Is Key Election Issue For N.M. Hispanics

Iraq War Is Key Election Issue For N.M. Hispanics

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as the presidential candidates court the Latino vote, they're looking to New Mexico. Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of the state's electorate, and while they're 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.

Now Iraq is a big issue again for the state's Hispanics. NPR's Jennifer Ludden continues our series on the Latino vote in 2008.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: New Mexico has four military bases, and between active duty and the National Guard, it can seem like just about everyone here has served or knows someone in the military.

Mr. ANTONIO GANDARA MARTINEZ: My grandfather, Jake Martinez, was Air Corps in World War II. And my Grandpa Gandy, on my mom's side, was fighting in Okinawa, I believe. A long history. It goes back three generations now, and ending with my brother, who's a Marine.

LUDDEN: Antonio Gandara Martinez says his older brother and his mother have both had tours in Iraq. At first Gandara Martinez says he believed the Bush administration when it said there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11. But as that rationale has fallen apart, so has his faith in the war.

Mr. MARTINEZ: I felt betrayed. I think a lot of Hispanics got disillusioned.

LUDDEN: A poll last year for the nonpartisan Latino Policy Coalition found two-thirds of Hispanic voters believed going to war with Iraq was a mistake.

Mr. MARTINEZ: Are you registered to vote?

LUDDEN: That's why Gandara Martinez joined College Democrats at the University of New Mexico. On this afternoon, clipboard in hand, he's signing up new voters.

Mr. MARTINEZ: (unintelligible), basic information at the top, anything under here.

Unidentified Man: Do I have to wait until I have a residence in New Mexico first?

Mr. MARTINEZ: No, you don't…

LUDDEN: Gandara Martinez supports Barack Obama because the candidate considers the Iraq war a mistake. He hears others on campus defend the war, and says Iraq is a topic that comes up all the time.

Professor CHRISTINE SIERRA (Political Science, University of New Mexico): This is not an abstract issue for the Hispanic community, and certainly not an abstract issue in New Mexico.

LUDDEN: Christine Sierra teaches political science at the University of New Mexico. She says while Hispanics were early supporters of the Iraq war, she can understand why polls show a majority turned against it, even before the rest of the country.

Prof. SIERRA: 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.

LUDDEN: In fact, that Latino Policy Coalition poll found nearly half of Hispanic voters said they had a family member or a close friend serving in Iraq or Afghanistan. The community's large, extended families likely make the war's impact greater, and yet those very family connections to the military could also help John McCain.

(Soundbite of music)

LUDDEN: Two mornings a week, this mariachi band plays in the lobby of Albuquerque's VA Medical Center. New Mexico is full of Hispanic veterans, many older, many conservative, even though they may be registered as Democrats. Republican activists say McCain's military service resonates with this group.

Mr. DAN GARZA (New Mexico Republican National Hispanic Assembly): In the Hispanic culture, family comes first, and the military sort of falls right into that. It's a family.

LUDDEN: Dan Garza heads New Mexico's Republican National Hispanic Assembly. He says while some may be uneasy about the Iraq war, they're also uneasy about a quick U.S. pullout. Garza believes many Hispanics trust McCain more to find the right time and way to withdraw, and not just Republicans.

Mr. GARZA: My father has voted Democrat his whole life. He's 79 years old, God bless him, and he has told me that he will probably vote for McCain.

LUDDEN: In his first general-election TV ad, McCain certainly played up his military experience, while also seeming to acknowledge opposition to the Iraq war.

(Soundbite of political advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I hate war, and I know how terrible its costs are. I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe.

LUDDEN: For a senator from Arizona who's supposed to be the favorite son of the Southwest, John McCain may have to work harder than he'd hoped for New Mexico's Hispanic voters. Iraq is one issue he'll likely keep pushing. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Latinos make up a sizable part of the population in four battleground states. You can explore their numbers and hear previous stories in our series on Latino voters at npr.org/election.

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