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Don't Underestimate Latino’s Deep Respect For Military


February 16, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

So, who is more likely to get Latino voter support in November: a former National Guard flyboy from Texas or a former Navy officer from Massachusetts?

Far more important questions about the Latino vote will be asked before election 2004 is over. They will focus on complex issues, like President Bush's guest-worker proposal or his school-reform effort so there is ``no child left behind.''

But for now, with the presidential primaries well under way, an interesting trend may have emerged in two states with large Latino populations: Arizona and New Mexico. On Feb. 3, Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic frontrunner, won easily in both states with solid Latino support -- 41 percent in Arizona, according to one exit poll. But what I find intriguing is who came in second in those two states, both in overall voting and among Latinos. It was neither of the two men most pundits see as jockeying for the No. 2 spot, Howard Dean and John Edwards. It was retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

In Arizona, Clark got 26.8 percent of the primary ballots. Among Latino voters, he got 29 percent of the vote, according to an exit poll by Edison Research. In the presidential caucuses in New Mexico, where 30 percent of the voters are Latino, Kerry won with 37.7 percent support, and Clark got 19 percent.

Obviously, one should not make too much of voting trends so early in an election year. In fact, Clark has since dropped out of the race. But the Arizona and New Mexico voting results do offer one useful reminder to the Democrats. They provide more evidence that Latinos do not easily fit into the liberal mold, where too many Democrats try to lump them with African Americans.

Though Latinos tend to favor more spending on schools and many of the government programs backed by liberals, they also tend to be conservative on social issues like abortion and support for the military. At least that is one credible explanation why Clark, who was in uniform until recently, got voter support second only to Kerry, a Vietnam War hero. Of course, the fact that Latinos are pro-military comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the pride that Latino families take in relatives who have served in the armed forces.

Walk into almost any Hispanic home and somewhere on a wall or shelf you'll see prominent photos of fathers, uncles, cousins or siblings in uniform. They may be grainy old pictures from World War II or fresh new snapshots of young men or women serving in the Persian Gulf, but they have a place of honor in the family gallery.

And although not as visible an issue as education or as emotional a topic as immigration, Latino attitudes toward the military could loom in the background as a key factor that determines whether Latinos vote for Bush or support his opponent, who it now appears will be Kerry.

Bush aims to increase his Latino voter support from the respectable 35 percent he got in 2000 to at least 40 percent in 2004. The hope is that Latino swing voters will push New Mexico, which Bush lost by 600 votes in 2000, over to the GOP.

Democrats point to Arizona and Nevada, which Bush won in 2000, in the hopes of gaining enough new Latino votes to win those states. But in a Bush-Kerry race, discussions of military service are muddled by politically inconvenient facts.

Kerry was a wounded war hero, but he returned from Vietnam to publicly criticize the war. Many veterans consider that a betrayal of his comrades in arms.

'Throwing those medals away, that could stick in a lot of guys' craw,'' said Dan Ortiz, a Los Angeles veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Some Latinos might feel the same.

On the GOP side, there is the question of whether Bush completely fulfilled his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard or was, as some ardent critics claim, AWOL part of the time. ''A lot of vets, it doesn't matter so much what you did as long as you served,'' said George Ramos, a Vietnam veteran from East Los Angeles. ``But some may say Kerry was in 'Nam and the president wasn't, and hold that against Bush.''

Late in 2002, a few White House operatives briefly tried to bash Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- including some military veterans -- because they had voted against giving Bush authority to use military force in Iraq. Though the caucus is notably more liberal than Latinos on many issues, the GOP ploy generated a nasty backlash.

Given Latinos' positive attitudes toward the military, it might not be a good idea to try such a stunt again. Better to honor all forms of service and patriotism, as Latino families do, than to compare military records in a tacky version of one-upmanship.

Frank Del Olmo is an associate editor for The Los Angeles Times.

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