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Chicago Tribune

Spanish Lessons Are On The GOP Agenda

By Jeff Zeleny

January 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

AUSTIN, Texas -- The intensified drive to draw Hispanic voters to the Republican Party isn't a voluntary mission of political correctness, but a matter of sheer necessity at the ballot box.

Worried that legions of campaign workers nationally can't speak the fastest-growing language of political importance, the Republican National Committee is sending key operatives to intense Spanish language classes.

For up to two weeks, GOP officials from selected states will immerse themselves in vocabulary and conversation at the Berlitz Language School in Washington.

"We can't survive as a party without getting more of the Hispanic vote," said Matthew Dowd, a pollster and senior adviser to the RNC.

The statistics tell the story best: President Bush won the votes of 35 percent of Hispanic Americans, while Al Gore received 62 percent. If the votes are cast in the same proportions in the 2004 presidential race, the GOP predicts, Bush would lose by up to 3 million votes.

Republicans studied the sobering facts at the party's recent strategy meeting. The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Marc Racicot, delivered a mandate to party activists before they returned to their home states to plot strategies for winning races in this competitive midterm election year.

"We have an incredible opportunity right now to expand the party, not only in terms of diversity, but also in terms of numbers," said Racicot, a former governor of Montana.

In 1990, Hispanics made up 9 percent of the U.S. population. Last year's census said the Hispanic population has increased to 12 percent, an increase that creates the potential for millions of new voters, not only in places like Texas, California and Arizona, but also Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin, among other states.

Republicans once relied on conservative Hispanic voters in states like Florida, Dowd said, but today the electorate is not so easily defined.

In 1988, when President George Bush ran for office, two of every three Hispanic votes came from Cuban-Americans, who lean largely Republican. When his son ran in 2000, two of every three Hispanic voters were non-Cuban and Democratic-leaning.

Democrats say their party is more aligned with concerns of Hispanic voters.

At the Democratic National Committee meeting last week in Washington, party Chairman Terry McAuliffe mocked the GOP effort in a speech and vowed Democrats would not surrender the Hispanic vote.

"They say they plan to teach RNC members to speak Spanish, and I think that's great," McAuliffe said. "Hispanic communities should be able to hear in their native tongue about the Republican policies designed to help the special interests at the expense of working families."

Both parties, though, are aggressively competing behind-the-scenes for the growing Hispanic vote. Democrats and Republicans have created separate Spanish-speaking public relations staffs to produce television programs, mailings and radio addresses that most non-Hispanic voters never see or hear.

President Bush, who frequently speaks some Spanish during public appearances, is bolstering the GOP effort. Earlier this month in California, for example, the president held a televised town meeting sponsored by the Latino Coalition Foundation, the Ontario Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Latin Business Association.

Internal GOP polling indicates that as Hispanics rise on the economic ladder they have greater tendency to vote like whites and support Republican candidates.

But Republicans must delicately balance just how far they reach out to new citizens.

The president's recent proposal to restore food stamps to more than 363,000 legal immigrants in his 2003 budget drew sharp criticism from conservatives who accused him of trying to buy votes at a 10-year cost of $2.1 billion.

"It's plain to see that the president has chosen to steal a page from the Democrats' playbook," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. "His attempt to expand our political base through surrendering to the Hispanic vote is usually the Democrats' job. Votes can't be bought with welfare."

At the same time, public opinion polls indicate that some Hispanic voters think the outreach amounts to pandering.

Nevertheless, sending top GOP operatives to Spanish language school underscores how serious the Republican Party is in trying to making itself more attractive to Hispanic voters.

Marlys Popma, the executive director of the Republican Party of Iowa, hopes to learn the language to recruit candidates and increase voter registration in a state where the Hispanic population has grown exponentially in the last decade.

In a state where Bush lost by only a few thousand ballots, new voters will be key in future elections.

"The party has been perceived as exclusionary," Popma said. "But President Bush has awakened Republicans to the fact that these are our people. It's a long-term prospect of teaching and learning for both sides, but it will have a huge impact in 2004."

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