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GOP Aggressively Seeks Latino Vote


October 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

WASHINGTON (AP) - Republicans are trying to use President Bush's popularity, a Spanish-language TV program and voter registration drives at naturalization ceremonies to cut into the Democrats' long-standing lead among Hispanic voters.

Trumpeting the Hispanic candidates running for local, state and federal office on the GOP line this fall, the Republicans brought 140 of them to the White House Thursday to meet Bush and White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, then took them to lunch near the Capitol with Housing Secretary Mel Martinez.

The number of U.S. Hispanics rose during the past decade from 22.4 million to 35.3 million, Census Bureau statistics show. The new total is just behind the 35.4 million black Americans.

"When you have candidates that are focused on reaching out to Hispanics, they have great success," said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas. "As Republicans initiate this contact, you get the response, 'We've been waiting for you to show up in our neighborhoods.'"

So far, however, most Hispanics, like blacks, remain in the Democratic camp.

A poll released Thursday said Hispanic voters identify themselves as Democrats over Republicans by 49 percent to 20 percent. The survey, sponsored by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Kaiser Family Foundation, included 1,329 Hispanic voters and was taken between April 4 and June 11. It had an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

"There's a reason why Latinos are still Democrats," said Rep Jose Serrano, D-N.Y. "The advantage we have is our daily behavior has always been an outreach."

What gives the GOP cause for optimism is that fewer Latinos who plan to become citizens identify themselves with either party - 22 percent for the Democrats to 14 percent for the Republicans.

"Partisanship hardens the longer you're here," said Rodolfo de la Garza, vice president of research for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute and a political science professor at Columbia University.

To lure the new immigrants, the Republican National Committee staffs naturalization ceremonies.

"As Latinos throughout this country are becoming U.S. citizens, there are Republican staffers and Republican volunteers welcoming them and congratulating them on becoming citizens and inviting them to join the Republican ranks," said Rudy Fernandez, director of grass-roots development for the Republican National Committee.

In addition, the party produces a monthly Spanish-language TV news magazine that touts the Republican agenda and Bush. Called "Abriendo Caminos," or "forging new paths," the half-hour program airs several times each month on stations in Albuquerque, N.M.; Denver; Fresno, Calif.; Miami; Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla.

Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, acknowledges that the Democrats have to fight for the loyalties of those new immigrants, many of whom are from Latin American countries other than Mexico and Cuba. The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, Menendez said he makes the case for the Democrats during his frequent appearances on Spanish-language news programs. "This is not a a community that the Democratic Party can simply take for granted," he said.

A separate study published Thursday found that gubernatorial and senatorial candidates in both parties have spent a total of $4.5 million so far airing Spanish language commercials. "The trend in recent months shows a sharp rise in Spanish-language advertising in large states with close elections and large Hispanic populations," said Adam Segal, who is tracking the ads. He is editor of the Johns Hopkins Journal of American Politics.

The GOP also hopes to capitalize on Bush's popularity with Hispanics. When Hispanic voters were asked which party they have confidence in when it comes to dealing with the economy, they picked Democrats by a 2-1 margin. However, when they were given a choice between Bush and Democrats in Congress on handling the economy, they split evenly.

"In California, they don't call it the Republican Party, they call it the Party of Bush," said Luis Vega, running for the House against Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the Democratic chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Bush's popularity isn't transferrable.

"Latinos are very respectful. It's part of our culture," said Reyes, of Texas. "But they can also understand that the economy is bad and the first ones to suffer are Latinos.

It's one thing to be able to speak Spanish. It's another to listen to that rhetoric on an empty stomach."

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