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Six Democrats Court Hispanic Voters
By MIKE GLOVER, Associated Press Writer
June 28, 2003
PHOENIX - Six rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, courting the large and growing Hispanic community Saturday, promised to overhaul the nation's immigration policy and enlarge economic opportunities for newcomers.
"We need to change our immigration laws so that hardworking people who pay their taxes and have no criminal record have a faster track to citizenship," said former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. "Most importantly, we need jobs and opportunity again, and that will only come with a new president."
Dean and the others spoke to a convention of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, which represents a constituency that has been reliably Democratic in past elections.
Democrats and Republicans alike, however, agree that the party cannot be complacent about next year's campaign, because President Bush did better among Hispanics than previous Republicans in the 2000 election and has targeted the ethnic group as a key demographic in 2004.
Speaking of the increasing importance of Hispanics, who recently replaced blacks as the largest ethnic minority, Sen. John Edwards (news, bio, voting record) spoke of the tiny North Carolina town where he grew up, which he said is now half Hispanic. "They are living the immigrant's dream," Edwards said, and "they are living the American dream."
Rep. Richard Gephardt told his audience that he helped beat back English-only legislation and pledged to work overtime to bolster turnout among potential Hispanic voters.
"We have to get the people of this country to participate and take this country back," said Gephardt, D-Mo.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry noted his service in the Vietnam War, where a large percentage of those in the thick of battle were minorities. Many came back to the United States and found little opportunity, he said.
"I learned how tough it was, how promises were broken," Kerry said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio offered to join his audience and "work together united for social and economic justice," said Kucinich.
Most candidates sprinkled their comments with Spanish, which drew derision from candidate Al Sharpton.
"I was going to make my statement in Spanish," said Sharpton. But, he said, "The people who need to hear what we are saying are the people who speak English who aren't being fair to the people who speak Spanish."
Sharpton noted that Bush speaks Spanish and frequently uses it on the stump. Hispanics should be wary, he said, of "people who visit you once a year, say something in Spanish, and you never hear from them again."
The six in Phoenix were not alone among politicians lavishing attention on the hundreds of Hispanic activists gathered for the annual convention. Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bob Graham of Florida held a forum with the group by satellite Friday. The Bush administration dispatched a series of GOP officials to show the flag.
All six of the Democratic rivals lashed out at Bush for pushing tax cuts they argued largely benefit the rich, which forced spending cuts on crucial education and health programs.
While Hispanic voters have traditionally trended Democratic, Bush got 35 percent of that vote in 2000 and has made increasing that showing a priority in his re-election campaign.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, moderated Saturday's forum. He told reporters that Democrats must address bedrock education and economic issues.
"We cannot just focus on the traditional Hispanic issues of immigration and civil rights," said Richardson. "The problem with the Democratic Party is it has taken the Hispanic vote for granted."