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‘Ojo' Contact Bodes Well For Bush

By Mark Silva

November 16, 2003
Copyright ©2003 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

Carmen Muñoz pushed through the crowd surrounding President Bush in the old blue-and-white gymnasium of Orlando's Engelwood Neighborhood Center.

"Today is my birthday," Muñoz told the president.

"Feliz cumpleaños," Bush replied.

This was all the 64-year-old Muñoz needed to hear to confirm that she had made the right choice in voting for Bush, casting her first presidential vote in Orlando since moving from Puerto Rico four years ago. And, yes, Muñoz said, this president should appeal to plenty of other people like her, plenty of Hispanic voters.

"He has interest, no?" she explained in English still tender. "He is most interested for us."

Bush cares.

If that's what a voter, or even a community of voters, believes, that's worth more than any television ad that any campaign can buy.

The battle for the burgeoning and politically shifting Hispanic vote of Central Florida could determine the outcome of the next presidential election in Florida, if it's as close as the Bush brothers believe it will be. At this stage, the president is winning.

Because of believers.

Bush's own father suffered from a perception that he was out of touch, uncaring. And you won't find these Bush brothers exposing themselves to television cameras in the checkout line of supermarkets where milk costs, what?

Campaigning in Hispanic precincts, Bush even speaks the language -- or rather attempts it, spinning a word here and there sparingly peppered on his English.

I followed him through a Mexican restaurant in Davenport, Iowa, during his first campaign, where he told a handful of diners to look at him closely.

"I want to look you all in the ojos," Bush said.

The eyes.

The eyes have it, as he works that rope line at campaign/presidential appearances today, dispensing birthday greetings in Spanish and moving on.

The truth is, his younger brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, is far more fluent in Spanish, a language he learned working in banking in Venezuela as a young man and marrying a young woman from Mexico. The governor is so good that he can carry on a detailed and textured discussion of arcane policy in Spanish with any of the Spanish-language television networks that sit down to interview him, as they often do.

But speaking Spanish alone is not the key.

Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, speaks pretty well for himself. He says he learned Spanish one summer in prep school when he and a friend worked on a Lake Okeechobee-area cattle ranch that the friend's father owned.

If he becomes his party's presidential nominee -- which appears increasingly likely as Dean collects a horde of big money from little donors, backing of big unions and a Teflon-like ability to steer through controversy unscratched -- he can try some of that old Florida-schooled Spanish on Florida's Spanish-speaking voters.

But it will take a lot more than language tricks to win the hearts of wary voters. For her part, Carmen Muñoz will have nothing to do with Dean.

"I'm a Republican," she says. "I love my president."

The question is how many of Muñoz's friends will believe what Dean or another Democrat has to say.

How many will believe he cares about them -- the way they believe in Bush?

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