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The Palm Beach Post

Que Pasa?' It's The 2004 Election

By Dan Moffett

May 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Palm Beach Post. All Rights Reserved.

The theme for the past week has been pretty obvious around the White House - er, rather, La Casa Blanca.

President Bush delivers his weekly radio message in Spanish and says it will become his standing practice. A Cinco de Mayo fiesta, complete with mariachi music and folk dancing, makes merry on the South Lawn. The president holds his first kids' T-ball game of the summer, and the guest of honor is Nomar Garciaparra, the Boston Red Sox star shortstop who is of Mexican ancestry.

But wait. There's more.

The president sends a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to extend the April 30 deadline for illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while they pursue legal status. The unexpected move appalls conservative Republicans and perplexes liberal Democrats. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer explains the thinking with language that is eerily Kennedyesque:

"The president is very concerned about what would happen to families of immigrants . . . who would be forced to separate from their loved ones. The president stands on the side of these immigrants and their families."

What's going on here? Republican strategists are reading the census, that's what.

Using returns from Census 2000, the president's advisers calculate that he would lose by about 3.5 million votes in 2004 if minorities were to support the Democratic candidate by the same percentage they did last fall. To put the projected deficit in perspective, it is roughly all the votes cast in Alabama and Indiana in November.

No doubt, Hispanics are the critical minority, with a population growing so fast they will outnumber African-Americans by the next election. The Hispanic expansion puts Republican states such as Nevada, Missouri and Colorado in play and pushes swing states such as New Jersey and Michigan into the Democrats' column.

The census figures are sobering for Mr. Bush's political brain trust. Despite the president's popularity with Texas' Mexican- Americans, his unwavering support from Florida's Cuban-Americans and his public utterances in Spanish, he won only about 35 percent of the nation's Hispanic vote. That was about 10 points better than his father, George H.W., did in 1992 and 13 points better than Bob Dole did in 1996.

Those numbers can be read two ways: Either George W. Bush is making real inroads with Hispanic voters, or even though Republicans never have had a candidate more attractive to Hispanics, George W. Bush still is a 2-to-1 loser.

What the census says for sure is that the president will not win a second term unless he finds a way to close that 3.5 million-vote gap, and if Democrats claim the Hispanic vote the way they have claimed the African-American vote, President Bush has virtually no chance of watching his T-ball league play the 2005 season.

So rather suddenly, Hispanic has become the most important word in the Republican vocabulary. That explains the Cinco de Mayo revelry, the Spanish radio talks, Mr. Garciaparra's White House appearance and the president's rush three weeks after his inauguration to visit Mexican President Vicente Fox.

But courting the Hispanic voting bloc with substantive offerings, things that matter, will be a maddening assignment because Hispanics are no bloc. Mexican-Americans, the Latinos who are the largest and fastest-growing Spanish-speaking population, appreciate the president's move to extend the illegal immigrants' deadline, but what about a look at the government's entire approach to immigration? What about migrant worker issues? What about the deplorable state of many Latino schools?

Cuban-Americans, meanwhile, figure they hold Mr. Bush's marker because they gave him the edge in Florida, and with it the presidency. Besides maintaining the trade embargo, exiles want U.S. courts to assess damages against foreign companies that do business in Cuba. Exiles who lost property when Fidel Castro took over want compensation. Puerto Ricans , meanwhile, want the Navy's bombing practice on Vieques stopped. Colombian- and Peruvian-Americans want passage of the Andean Adjustment Act to allow residency for 100,000.

Most items on the long Hispanic wish list run contrary to long- held Republican positions. How will the president win the immigrants, the new voters he needs, without alienating his base? Mariachi music? That's not going to be enough.

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