The Mad Grab for Latino Votes
The GOP candidate for once may have an edge with a minority group--but Gore is pulling out the stops

When George W. Bush clinched the Republican Presidential nomination on Mar. 14, he appeared before a cheering throng in Austin, Tex., flanked by a bevy of Latino VIPs. Standing beside him were state Supreme Court Justice Alberto R. Gonzales, Representative Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.), and Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza. To complete the photo op, Bush got Carlos M. Ramirez, the popular mayor of El Paso and a Democrat to boot, to introduce him.

The Hispanic heavyweights were no coincidence. Latino voters have long been a Democratic stronghold, but this year Bush is making an all-out effort to woo Spanish speakers from the barrios to the 'burbs. Because the Presidential contest is expected to be close, ''this is the first election where the Latino vote is going to have a key impact,'' says California Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres.

So far, Bush's strategy is paying dividends. A Mar. 12-13 poll found Bush leading Vice-President Al Gore among Latinos 51% to 45%. His 62% favorable rating was remarkable for a Republican pol, and 18 points better than Gore's tepid 44%. Bush's standing is all the more impressive because Hispanics overwhelmingly favor Democrats for Congress.

Gore advisers know the stakes are high. Large Hispanic populations could tip the balance in the key states of Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania--and might well determine the outcome in November, even though they make up just 7% of the national electorate. Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the U.S., having jumped 35% since 1990, to 30.3 million, and will be America's largest ethnic group by 2005. ''Whichever party takes the Latino vote will be the dominant party for the next decade,'' asserts GOP strategist Scott Reed.

ATTENTIVE GOVERNOR. What accounts for Bush's surprising appeal to Hispanics, who shunned '96 GOP nominee Bob Dole and recoiled at the immigrant-bashing of prominent Republicans such as former California Governor Pete Wilson? For starters, Bush supports open immigration and opposes the ''English-only'' policies of GOP hard-liners. He has made a concerted effort to reach out to Hispanic business and civic leaders--and he mingles easily, in Spanish, with ordinary folks. ''I don't think there has been any major campaign appearance where the governor hasn't spoken of Latinos or had a Latino in the photo frame,'' says political scientist Andy Hernandez of St. Mary's University in San Antonio.

Just a bunch of cheap campaign imagery? Bush backers insist not. ''He is knowledgeable and sensitive about Hispanic issues,'' says Democratic El Paso Mayor Ramirez. ''In the past, Democrats have taken Latino voters for granted, and Republicans have tended not to pay any attention. The governor has made it a point to be inclusive.''

To Bush supporters, the effort is crucial to his crusade to change the GOP's image as the party of angry Anglos. ''If I'm the nominee,'' Bush vowed before the Iowa caucuses, ''we're going to have a Latino campaign [and] people are going to say, 'My goodness, what has happened to the Republican Party?' It has changed its face, and it needs to.''

Nowhere is that more evident than in Bush's emphasis on education reform, issue No. 1 for Hispanics. Everywhere he goes, the Texan boasts that his policies have improved test scores of Hispanic students. And his willingness to experiment with school vouchers is a hit with Latinos, who back the approach by a 2-to-1 margin.

Republicans are hoping to target upwardly mobile Hispanics through a soon-to-be-launched program called American Dreamers. A GOP strategist says the plan is to woo ''second-generation Americans who have achieved success.''

The Gore camp is understandably nervous. And it has developed a strategy that aims to whittle away at Bush's appeal to Latinos while bolstering Gore's image. Janet Murguia, a senior Gore adviser, says the Veep will press into service Latino elected officials, 90% of whom are Democrats, to help reframe the debate and reclaim any ground lost to Bush's inroads. The pitch: Bush talks a good game, but his record is that of a right-wing Republican. ''Anybody who thinks that George Bush is good for the Latino community is living la vida loca,'' says California Lieutenant Governor Cruz M. Bustamante.

The Veep launched an anti-Bush offensive on Mar. 21 by zinging him for opposing Census sampling, a statistical method that most Hispanics believe will more accurately reflect their burgeoning numbers. The next day, Democratic officeholders, led by Bustamante and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, blasted Bush's record on a litany of issues, from schools to children's health.

In coming weeks, Gore surrogates will harp on Bush's appearance at Bob Jones University, which embraces anti-Catholic dogma. And they'll portray him as a failed governor who has presided over grinding poverty along the Mexican border, a high Latino school dropout rate, and inadequate state health care for low-income Hispanics. They'll contrast that with the Clinton Administration's claims of Hispanic gains in employment, college attendance, and business startups. Gore ''has to go out there and really promote himself,'' says Nelson A. Diaz, a Philadelphia attorney and chairman of the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic Caucus.

The Gore camp is quick to point out that Bush's strong showing nationally is due mostly to his popularity in his home state and in Florida, where brother Jeb is governor and has a Mexican-born wife. Elsewhere, Bush still faces an uphill fight. In California, the biggest electoral prize, his prospects are dim: Gore outpolled Bush 3 to 1 among Hispanics in the Mar. 7 open primary.

TIPPING THE SCALE. Up for grabs are the Northeastern and Midwestern battleground states. Gore has an early edge in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, where the sizable Puerto Rican voting bloc is overwhelmingly Democratic. And New Jersey's big Cuban-American community is far more Democratic than its larger counterpart in Florida. But polls show Bush faring better in Illinois.

Republicans would be euphoric just to stay close to Gore among Hispanic voters. Strategists argue that winning a mere 40% of the Hispanic vote could tip key states into the Bush column. Bush and Gore are running neck and neck in the polls--that's why both candidates will be cuing the mariachis from Jersey City to East Los Angeles.

By Amy Borrus and Richard S. Dunham in Washington

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The Mad Grab for Latino Votes

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