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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Bush Embracing Latino Electorate

With his eyes on another term, the President is wooing the fastest-growing segment of voters.

By Dick Polman

September 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All Rights Reserved.

Sometimes the best political advertising doesn't cost a cent.

After all, what better way for President Bush to woo Latino voters, the fastest-growing group in the electorate, than to appear in the Spanish-language media as a compassionate guy with a soft spot for immigrants?

The other day, for example, he hosted President Vicente Fox of Mexico, who was making the first state visit of the Bush administration. They talked, albeit vaguely, about legalizing the status of undocumented Mexican immigrants. They staged an elaborate state dinner. Bush even invited an anchorperson from Univision, the powerful Spanish-language TV network.

This is the public face of a kinder, gentler Republican party - a far cry from the immigrant-bashing image that predominated a mere five years ago, when House Speaker Newt Gingrich and California Gov. Pete Wilson were rolling up the red carpet.

Bush's warm feelings toward Mexico were evident during his tenure as Texas governor, but cold political calculations play into his current behavior: Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the nation's biggest minority group, and Mexican Americans are the biggest group within the Latino electorate.

White House strategists have concluded that if Bush wants to serve eight years rather than four, he had better boost his stock within the Latino political market, starting now.

He won over only 35 percent of those voters in 2000, and strategists say he needs roughly 40 percent in 2004. They're eyeing states with growing Latino electorates that Bush narrowly lost last time (Wisconsin, Oregon, Iowa), as well as states where non-Cuban Latinos could erase Bush's 2000 success (Nevada, and especially Florida).

This helps to explain Bush's various actions - floating the idea (later downsized) of granting legal status to three million Mexicans now working illegally in the United States; appointing a Mexican American as White House counsel; hinting about a Hispanic nomination to the Supreme Court; and calling for an end to U.S. naval bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques three years from now, about the time he seeks reelection.

It's possible, as Democrats hope, that Bush is raising Latino expectations that can't be fulfilled, that he will be foiled by congressional conservatives, and that Latinos will slap him down. But, for now, his early efforts are spreading good cheer.

Sergio Bendixen, an independent Latino pollster, said: "It's amazing what he has done. When was the last time that you saw a Republican president with 70 percent support among registered Hispanic voters? They generally tend to feel better about the Democratic party - but they love this guy."

In a summer poll that Bendixen conducted for Radio Unica, a Spanish-language network, Bush was viewed favorably by 70 percent nationwide, with only 25 percent in dissent. By contrast, a Bendixen poll released before the November election put Bush at 42 percent positive, 55 percent negative.

But this may not matter in the end. Rodolfo de la Garza, a Latino analyst, cautioned: "Affability toward a candidate is not the same as support for a candidate. Bush has presented a gracious self. That's very nice. But that doesn't necessarily translate into votes."

Marshall Wittmann, a Republican analyst, said: "Bush is sending out positive atmospherics that we haven't seen coming from Republicans, ever. Yeah, it's like chicken soup - you don't know if it's going to help [Latinos], but it sure won't hurt. And, bottom line, this is a plus for Republicans because now they're playing on Democratic turf."

In short, Bush is making it tougher for Democrats to woo Latinos by demonizing the GOP.

That job was easier in 1994, when Wilson sought in a referendum to expel the children of illegal immigrants from public schools, and in 1996, when Gingrich sought to pass such a law in Congress, with support from presidential candidate Bob Dole. That year, the Republican majority also passed a welfare law that cut off benefits to many legal immigrants.

But the Democrats still like their old approach.

"Sure, Bush's talk is giving [the GOP] a symbolic advantage," said Maria Cardona, speaking for the Democratic National Committee, "But the old days really aren't so old. There are still some rabid anti-immigrant extremists in the Republican Party, and we won't let people forget that."

In the scramble for Latino voters - Democratic Senate leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota was a constant presence on Univision last week - it's clear that the Democrats want Latinos to dismiss Bush as a big talker whose conservative friends in Congress will block any plan that grants even limited legal status to Mexicans now working here illegally.

(Privately, Democrats say they wouldn't be too upset if Bush's ambitions are wrecked by the conservatives. They fear that if a Latino-friendly compromise is enacted, Bush would get all the credit.)

But even though Democrats inaccurately imply that most Republicans are still immigrant-bashers - for starters, Bush's business allies want more workers for low-wage entry jobs - it is also true that many conservatives think it's a waste of time to chase the Latino vote.

They argue that if Bush makes it easier for illegal workers to become citizens, he will merely create a new pool of Democratic voters because these workers, at the low end of the wage scale, tend to support the kinds of government programs touted by Democrats.

William Kristol, a conservative analyst, added: "Before, it was a mistake for us to appear 'anti-immigrant.' But it's not good for us now to pander, to look so desperate for Hispanic votes that we abandon certain principles" such as the view that granting legal status to undocumented immigrants is tantamount to rewarding lawbreakers.

And Latino analyst de la Garza agreed with conservatives that the Bush Latino strategy might be flawed. He said, "Latinos are like the [immigrant] Jews. They are predominantly going to be Democrats. They are working-class and ill-educated, and Republicans aren't good with those people.

"Republicans think they can get Latinos because they're socially conservative and they go to church. True. But they are also for big-government services. It's possible to be for both, and Republicans have never understood that."

But analyst James Garcia, who runs, a Latino news Web site, said that Republicans were smart to woo Latinos - indeed, the party has a new grassroots program to recruit and train Latino candidates - and that they can ill afford to do otherwise.

Garcia said, "Bush is sending a consistent message that he wants the party to go in a new direction, and they can build on that. Meanwhile, this week there were hundreds of Spanish-language papers, all showing Fox standing there with Bush and saying to the readers, in effect, 'Be nice to this guy.'

"Sure, two of three Latinos voted Democratic in 2000. But next time, it could be three of five. These days, a small shift can make a big difference."

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