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Associated Press Newswires

Clark's Early Efforts Pique Hispanics' Interest


September 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Associated Press Newswires. All rights reserved. 

LITTLE ROCK (AP) - Hours after announcing he would become the 10th Democratic presidential candidate, retired Gen. Wesley Clark stood in his makeshift campaign headquarters and discussed with volunteers how he could attract Hispanic voters -- in Spanish.

Clark, the former NATO commander, expects his military background to be a hit with Hispanics and this weekend was the only Democratic candidate expected to travel to Albuquerque for the Democratic National Committee's Hispanic Caucus summit.

Caucus chairman Alvaro Cifuentes said the DNC group has vowed to stay neutral early in the primary campaign, but he couldn't help crediting Clark for his awareness of Hispanic issues.

"He's only been in the race for a week, and the fact that he's seen this (the summit) on his radar screen this early and made it a priority to come forward on Sunday shows he's really in tune with Hispanic-Latino voters," Cifuentes said Wednesday.

The influential League of United Latin American Citizens expects the growing Hispanic voting bloc to be the difference in several swing states. LULAC will remain neutral in the election, but will gather candidates' responses to issues of importance to Hispanics, said spokeswoman Lorraine Quiroga.

Cifuentes said Clark's military leadership will help him connect with Hispanic voters and stand out from the crowd.

"Hispanics are traditionally engaged in the armed forces -- Puerto Ricans, per capita, have always had the highest casualty rate in wars, for instance," he said. "I would think that General Clark's entry should inspire a lot of first-hand interest in the Hispanic-Latino community."

All the leading Democratic candidates have spent time and money pursuing Hispanic groups, and eight of the other nine in the race earlier this month participated in a debate for the Spanish-language television network Univision, which included questions in English and Spanish.

But Cifuentes said Clark and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have stood out from the field -- Clark for his military ties and Dean for his fiery persona.

"Hispanics tend to be very passionate and emotional, and Dean has shown that in his campaign," Cifuentes said. "That's helped him make inroads in a community that thinks more with the heart than with the mind."

Other candidates have Spanish-language Web pages; Clark has two separate Hispanic-themed Web sites, one in both language and the other only in Spanish.

When Clark's campaign infrastructure in Little Rock was in disarray last week, in the throes of transforming from an Internet "Draft-Clark" movement into a full-fledged political machine, Hispanic activists from California were already on the scene.

Yosem Companys, a Puerto Rican-born Stanford doctoral student and graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, received his marching orders in Arkansas and has been traveling California drumming up Hispanic support.

He and his girlfriend, Cassandra Flenker, spent three days in Little Rock speaking in Spanish with Hispanic media outlets and political operatives, touting Clark's support for Hispanic immigrant rights and affirmative action, Clark's Colombian daughter-in-law, Astrid, and Clark's experience leading the U.S. Southern Command.

They also had a brief Spanish conversation with Clark himself, who kept his statements short but clearly understood Companys' complex discussion of former Puerto Rican Gov. Pedro Rossello's return to the political scene.

The day Clark announced, a major Colombian newspaper, El Tiempo, featured him on the cover, highlighting his role in the Southern Command. Companys said Puerto Ricans will also appreciate Clark's work in moving the Army's portion of the Southern Command to Puerto Rico.

"Hispanics are usually fragmented," Companys said. "Republicans feel they have the upper-hand militarily and with traditional family values, Democrats claim to be socially progressive. But General Clark brings all of those things together."

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