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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Clark: Appeal To Hispanics, Blacks Is No Mystery
GUILLERMO I. MARTINEZ, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
September 25, 2003
In less than a week, the presidential aspirations of retired Gen. Wesley Clark surprised the nation's voters and media pundits, with his popularity putting him atop or near the top of the Democratic candidates for president. Then he disappointed the professional political media by saying he supported the war in Iraq and within hours reversing his stand.
The media have scolded him for not being better-prepared and for not having an agenda worthy of a viable presidential candidate. Opponents charged that the former general and Oxford scholar was nothing more than a stand-in for Arkansas compatriot Bill Clinton and his wife, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
Yet no one has tried to explain the nouveau candidate's popularity with the voters. Some said it was because none of the other nine Democratic candidates had struck a chord with mainstream voters. Others said that it was the Clinton magic rubbing off. Some credited the work of the political pros that had helped elect the Clintons three times in a decade.
The experts, however, did not look at two of the main pillars of the Democratic Party in the 21st century -- African-American and Hispanic voters.
African-American voters have an undying love for the Clintons, one that surpasses the appeal of the two candidates of the same race. To say that African-Americans love the Clintons is an understatement. Seldom has a candidate held greater sway with any group of voters than the Clintons have over the African-American electorate.
What is most interesting, however, is the appeal that Clark has for the Hispanic voter. Maria Cardona, vice president of the New Democratic Network, points out that while in 1988 15 percent of the Hispanic voters had been born outside of the United States, by 2003, 53 percent of Hispanic voters were foreign-born.
George W. Bush targeted these voters successfully in 2000 when he got an estimated 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. His goal in 2004 was 45 percent of this group's vote. These voters -- no matter if they come from Mexico, Central or South America, Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic -- do not have a long-term history with the Democratic Party, Cardona explains.
"They speak mostly Spanish at home and get their news by watching Spanish-language television, or hearing Spanish-language radio," Cardona said. "They are more middle of the road" than the more activist wing of the Democratic Party, and "thus more susceptible to Republican Party overtures."
This is the reason why Cardona and other political pros believe that Clark has a strong base among Hispanic-American voters.
Support from the two Clintons is a big help. It comes in different forms. One is the name recognition and the knowledge -- well-publicized in the Hispanic media -- that Clark has close ties to the Clintons. The other is the belief that Clark best exemplifies the middle-of-the-road approach that carried Bill Clinton to the White House twice and put Hillary in the Senate two years ago. Other than the more militant activists, this is where Hispanic voters are most comfortable.
There is more. Clark is a retired general. Although some point out that his military credentials are not even close to those of World War II hero and two-time President Dwight D. Eisenhower, it is irrelevant. He is attractive and articulate.
Many Hispanic families have sons and daughters in the military and understand well the credentials of a four-star general. Those who migrated to the United States in the last 15 or 20 years have no problem with a candidate of military background in power. In Latin America, presidents with military credentials come from all along the political spectrum. Some won elections to govern. Others came by force.
Despite today's distrust of military dictatorships in the region, most Latin Americans still admire and want a strong person to govern, said Joaquin Perez, a political consultant with experience in Latin American and in Hispanic campaigns in the United States. Clark, who graduated from West Point, who is an Oxford scholar, who has an impeccable military record, who taught economics to military cadets, and by the way, is close to Bill and Hillary Clinton, certainly fits the bill.
Clark still may not have the skills professional political journalists would like, but he certainly has a strong base among Hispanic and African-American voters in the Democratic Party. Do not dismiss him as a Clinton stand-in. He is more than that.