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Politicians Rush To Tap Hispanic Voter Clout

By John Whitesides

March 13, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Reuters. All Rights Reserved.

WASHINGTON - The rising clout of Hispanic voters can be seen from the ballot box in Texas to the halls of Congress as politicians scramble to woo the nation's fastest growing ethnic group.

While Democrats have traditionally won large majorities of the Latino vote, Republicans led by President Bush have aggressively courted Hispanics, who represent a sizable and swelling voting bloc in many states, including the two largest, Texas and California.

"The sheer Hispanic demographic tide is enormous and likely to continue to grow," said Richard Murray, director of the University of Houston's Center for Public Policy. "Neither party can ignore it."

In Texas on Tuesday, Democratic voters nominated wealthy Hispanic businessman Tony Sanchez to oppose Republican incumbent Rick Perry in a governor's race seen as a test of Hispanic voting power in the Republican-dominated state, where Latinos make up 32 percent of the population and are projected to be a majority by 2025.

The free-spending Sanchez, who dropped more than $20 million on a primary campaign that featured a Spanish-language debate with opponent Dan Morales, is the state's first Hispanic gubernatorial nominee. Hispanic teacher Victor Morales was thrown into an April run-off with Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk for the Democratic nomination for the Senate.

Almost simultaneously Tuesday, the House of Representatives approved a White House-backed immigration measure with high Hispanic appeal that extends a temporary program allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while applying for permanent residency.

Bush, a former governor of Texas who has led the Republican drive to reach out to Hispanics, said the measure would help keep families together and make the United States a "more welcoming society."

Bush elevated Latin America to the top of his foreign policy agenda before changing course after the Sept. 11 attacks and likes to sprinkle Spanish phrases into his speech. He will visit Mexico, Peru and El Salvador next week.

Republicans are relying on his high poll ratings and his appeal to Hispanics on issues such as immigration and a recently signed landmark bipartisan education bill to expand their Hispanic backing.

"Everything begins with President Bush and his understanding of Hispanic issues and needs," said Rudy Fernandez, director of grassroots development at the Republican National Committee.

"We're trying to get Hispanics to take a second look at the party and tell them 'If you support the president, the Republican Party of 2002 is the party of George Bush,"' he said.

Democrats say Republicans are pandering to a Hispanic community that favors Democrats on key issues such as health care, jobs, education and protecting Social Security.

"The Democratic Party has been, is and always will be the party of the Hispanic community," said Gil Meneses, director of Hispanic media at the Democratic National Committee. "We represent the issues that matter most to Hispanics."

Both parties have launched significant recruiting and voter turnout efforts in the Hispanic community, which grew by 58 percent nationally between 1990 and 2000 while registered Latino voters jumped from 6.6 million to 7.5 million between 1996 and 2000.

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