Hopefuls making historic push for Hispanic support
Los Angeles Times
Jan. 17, 2008

LAS VEGAS - Hillary Rodham Clinton was sympathetic as, one after another, audience members discussed their unhappy dealings with shady home lenders.

"This is a problem we're going to talk a lot about in this campaign," the Democratic hopeful promised, suggesting that presidential candidates too often isolate issues like the subprime mortgage meltdown from the bigger economic picture.

"All of our problems are interconnected, but we treat them as though one is guacamole and one is chips," the New York senator said, drawing laughter and applause from the mostly Hispanic crowd gathered at the Lindo Michoacan restaurant off the Las Vegas Strip.

As the presidential campaign moves south and west from the mostly White, heavily rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Democrats are reaching out to Hispanic voters as never before - and not just through strained similes or rallies set to mariachi music.

In California, Nevada, Arizona and elsewhere, the candidates are advertising extensively in Spanish, running bilingual phone banks and dispatching door knockers fluent in English and Spanish.

They have ardently wooed and won the support of Hispanic political luminaries - among them Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for Clinton and former Transportation and Energy Secretary Federico Pena for Barack Obama - and dispatched them to key states to campaign.

They have promoted themselves on the pages of MyGrito, a Hispanic social networking site, and offered links on their campaign Web sites spelling out their platforms in Spanish.

All that is a departure from the style of "taco-and-sombrero politics," as University of Southern California professor Harry Pachon put it.

"That's been a traditional way to approach the Latino vote in the Southwest," said Pachon, head of the university's Tomas Rivera Policy Institute. "The candidate would come into town, say a couple of words in mangled Spanish, eat a taco, wear a sombrero. Times have changed."

Nevada, which holds its caucuses Saturday, was granted an early voting slot by the national Democratic Party, in part because of the state's sizable Hispanic population, which is about 25 percent and growing. Only about half of Nevada's Hispanic residents are eligible to vote, however, because many are under age 18 or do not have U.S. citizenship.

By competing early for Hispanic support, the thinking went, the eventual Democratic nominee would achieve an edge in the fall campaign, when Hispanic voters might be crucial in a number of states, including Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

That strategy rests on some broad assumptions, however, not least that Hispanics will turn out in greater numbers than they have in the past. In 2004, fewer than half of eligible Hispanics cast ballots, despite the closeness of that election, compared with two-thirds of White voters and 6 in 10 Blacks.

The candidacy of Obama is also testing the sometimes fraught relations between Hispanics and Blacks, a tension rooted in economic competition, that has been an incendiary element of politics in many urban areas. Speaking to reporters this week in Reno, the Illinois senator acknowledged the challenge he faces.

"I think it's important for us to get my record known before the Latino community," Obama said. "My history is excellent with Latino support back in Illinois, because they knew my record. I think nationally people don't know that record quite as well. So it's important for me to communicate that, to advertise on Spanish-speaking television, to make clear my commitments."

The Hispanic vote will be particularly crucial Feb. 5, when more than 20 states vote in what amounts to the first national presidential primary.

"You've got states like California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Arizona, Colorado," said Cuauhtemoc Figueroa, Obama's national field director. "If you're going to win in those states, you're going to have to spend resources and you're going to have to reach out to the Latino community."

That effort has been underway for months in Nevada, which points up both the promise and some of the obstacles Democrats face as they work to build Hispanic support here and beyond. (Nevada Republicans are also caucusing Saturday, but most of the candidates' focus has been on South Carolina's GOP primary the same day.)

The complex caucus system might limit participation among Hispanics. There is not even a Spanish word for "caucus," something the state Democratic Party has tried to remedy with a glossary of related terms.

Much of the campaigning here has been remedial, explaining what a caucus is and how it works. The Obama campaign started handing out bilingual fliers and broadcasting ads in Spanish last summer. The Clinton campaign has hosted dozens of Spanish-language sessions to educate potential voters and try to build a sense of excitement around Saturday's election.

"Voters that were born in other (places) - Puerto Rico, Mexico, Central America - talk about elections being a party, with music, concerts, emotional speeches," said Sergio Bendixen, who is directing Clinton's Hispanic strategy. "To get people out, you need to create that sort of atmosphere."

Surveys suggest the issues that resonate with Hispanic voters - the Iraq war, the economy, education, health care, immigration - are not that different from those topping the minds of most voters. But that has not stopped the candidates from tailoring their pitches, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.

Obama's New Hampshire rallying call - "Yes, we can!" - has become "íSi, se puede!, the cry of the late labor activist Cesar Chavez. Clinton, who spoke of tougher border enforcement in Iowa, has placed a greater emphasis in Nevada on finding a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.

Campaign strategists are convinced that whatever happens here will resonate among a wider audience Feb. 5, especially if the race stays tight.

"The closer an election, the more important the Latino vote becomes," said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount University's Center for the Study of Los Angeles. "If someone is winning by a large margin, it doesn't make a difference what Latinos do. ... What we are seeing right now is that this primary is competitive."