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San Francisco Chronicle Political Writer

Bush's Mexico Trip Has Political Goal With U.S. Latinos

GOP hopes visit will win over fast-growing voting bloc at home

Carla Marinucci

February 16, 2001
Copyright © 2001 San Francisco Chronicle. All Rights Reserved.

In a campaign whistle-stop tour last year, George W. Bush trekked down the dusty Main Street of the Central California town called Guadalupe -- heading for the seat of power, the local taqueria.

There, Bush introduced himself as "Jorge," ordered tacos, and won over Spanish-speaking residents with attempts to address them in their native language.

In spite of such enthusiastic and unorthodox gestures from a GOP candidate, analysts say President Bush will have to work harder, and deliver far more substantive goods, to win the nation's fastest growing voter group -- Latinos.

As he meets today with Mexican President Vicente Fox, Bush's advisers have an eye on domestic politics, particularly his ability to connect with Latino voters.

Supporters say the trip to Mexico could help Bush in his pitch to lure Latino voters, particularly those in California, to the Republican Party.

"From the beginning of the campaign, Gov. Bush made a sincere commitment to appeal to Latinos, and especially to target California," said Leslie Sanchez of the Republican National Committee.

A recently released RNC report argues that Bush and his party gained huge rewards from courting the Hispanic vote -- reversing an anti-GOP trend among Latinos in states such as California, Florida and Texas.

The former Texas governor garnered "the largest number of Hispanic votes of any GOP presidential candidate in history," Sanchez said.

But Democrats counter the Republican spin disguising the real story.

They note that in California, despite Bush's aggressive efforts, Latinos voted more than 2 to 1 in favor of Democratic Vice President Al Gore.

"He must have had 20 events (in California) with Hispanics during the campaign, and it got him nowhere," says Democratic campaign adviser Bob Mulholland. "Most voters are looking for substance over sizzle."

Republicans insist that Bush's efforts, however, represent a departure from the past and were appreciated by Latinos because they went beyond symbolic gestures.

In California, he held a series of meetings with Latino business leaders, visited their small businesses in traditionally Democratic communities like Santa Ana, and launched outreach that included work by his Latino heartthrob nephew, George P. Bush. Meanwhile, the GOP opened offices in East Los Angeles "and areas we hadn't been in for over a generation," Sanchez said.

The result: "We had 5,000 Hispanic activists doing precinct walks and literature drops," she said.

Those moves helped Bush pick up 2.5 million Latino votes, surpassing 1996 GOP candidate Bob Dole total by 1.5 million votes, she notes.

But those numbers don't impress California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the state's highest ranking Latino elected official, who says that even the current trip to Mexico can't change the lingering doubts caused by decades of perceived neglect and offenses.

Among them: anti-immigration rhetoric by Republican hard-liners and GOP support of Proposition 187, the anti-illegal immigration measure, along with now-infamous pro-187 ads using blurred photos of Mexicans crossing the border with a narrative warning that "they keep coming."

"The problem with Bush and the GOP is they give mixed signals," Bustamante said. "It's like their lips are saying yes and their head is nodding no."

Bustamante says Bush's outreach is mostly symbolic, "like the candidate who shows for a Cinco de Mayo parade and figures he can fool the Latino voters."

But Latinos are more sophisticated than that, he said.

"They can evaluate the candidate. And just because (Bush) got a good part of the Latino vote in Texas doesn't mean that he'll get that here," he said. "He has to prove himself."

Still, political analysts say the trip to Mexico is a step in the right direction for Bush. "The Hispanic voters were very alienated in California. And that did a lot of damage to the GOP, which was in no way unified in its views on immigration and free trade," said Ian Vasquez, director of the Washington-based Cato Institute's Project on Global Economic Liberty. "So this is probably part of the long-term strategy, and for the most part, it's a big plus in the public relations department."


Here are the five states with the most Latino registered voters in the U.S.

California 2.55 million
Texas 2.19 million
New York 896,000
Florida 761,000
Illinois 387,000
Chronicle Graphic

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