DENVER — Sensing an opening because of conservatives' hardline approach to immigration, Democrats are increasing their efforts to reach Hispanic voters in key Southwest states, a move they hope will help propel Sen. Barack Obama to the White House.
Republicans, however, aren't ceding the Hispanic vote. Arizona Sen. John McCain, who will accept the Republican presidential nomination next week, is also aggressively courting Hispanic voters, looking to build upon inroads into the voting bloc made by President Bush — a former Texas governor — and his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
However, Democrats think that Bush's low approval ratings, the weakening of the Republican brand nationally, and a perception among some Hispanics that McCain has flip-flopped on comprehensive immigration reform, improve Obama's chances with Hispanics in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. Hispanics make up about 12 percent of eligible voters in the Southwest — 37 percent in New Mexico.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who's Hispanic, predicted at the Democratic convention Tuesday that Obama will get more than 70 percent of the national Hispanic vote, helped by big numbers in the Southwest.
To achieve their goals, Democrats and allied groups are bolstering their Hispanic voter-registration drives and increasing their radio and television advertising aimed at Hispanics, according to the Western Majority Project, a group formed by Democratic strategists to build upon electoral gains the party has made in the Southwest.
"What I'm seeing is a highly motivated and excited electorate eager to have their voices heard," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Obama. "Whether we come from Mexico, El Salvador, from Argentina, Panama or Puerto Rico, we all are united and understand that this election is about us, it's about our families, our communities, and this is our chance to be heard."
A survey done for the Western Majority Project found that Obama holds an overall 64 percent to 25 percent lead over McCain among Hispanics in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado.
A recent poll by the non-partisan Pew Research Center found Obama leading McCain among Hispanics nationally by 66 percent to 23 percent, which seems to answer questions raised during the Democratic primaries about whether Obama could attract Hispanic votes.
But several Hispanic officials and organizations warn that Obama shouldn't consider heavy Hispanic support a lock.
"The big, big question for Latino voters is not whether Democrats will get the Latino votes. The question is what the margin will be," said Cecilia Munoz, senior vice president for policy for the National Council of La Raza, a nonprofit Hispanic organization that fights poverty and discrimination. "If McCain gets 40 percent (of the Latino vote), he can win. And Senator McCain, though he may be behind, is not giving up and is running very hard in the Latino community."
McCain is looking to follow in Bush's footsteps with Hispanic voters. The president captured between 32 percent and 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004; analysts' estimates vary. Bush's Texas ties and understanding of Hispanic culture attracted voters.
McCain's Arizona offers a sizeable Hispanic population, but he faces a challenge with Hispanic voters because of a perceived shift in his position on immigration. He helped craft a failed immigration-overhaul bill that included a guest-worker program that critics blasted as amnesty for illegal immigrants, but this year on the campaign trail he stressed securing America's borders.
Munoz said that both McCain and Obama could improve their fortunes among Hispanics if they shift campaign talk away from race and concentrate on issues more important to Hispanic voters: health care, education and the war in Iraq.
"Race is a conversation we can relate to, but it is one we have impatience with," she said. "It's a distraction from more substantive conversations about the economy, the war in Iraq and about making change that the community needs."
Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said it's understandable that race issues — largely focusing on the concerns of blacks and whites — are being discussed now, given America's history and Obama being the first African-American presidential nominee of a major party.
But Vargas said that if Obama and McCain want to win the Hispanic vote, they must do more than spend millions of dollars on Spanish-language radio and television ads. They must give something more precious: their time.
"I think both parties need to do more, particularly in going out and campaigning themselves before Hispanic voters," Vargas said. "The next six weeks will be critical in determining how serious they are about the Hispanic vote."
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