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Campaign Ads Aim To Lure Hispanic Voters

BY Sandra Hernandez and Rafael Lorente Washington Bureau

June 9, 2004
Copyright ©2004 SO FL SUN-SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON · When a small cadre of South Florida Democrats gathered in Little Havana Tuesday morning to kick off a Spanish language media blitz, it served as another reminder of the attention being lavished on Hispanic voters this campaign season.

The New Democrat Network ads, which feature prominent Latino elected officials including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez beckoning voters to join the party, are the latest effort to capture the growing Hispanic vote in such key battleground states as Florida.Democrats are not alone.

The Bush campaign has been running Spanish-language ads around the country since March.

``The Hispanic vote is going to be decisive,'' said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, and a member of President Bush's National Hispanic Steering Committee.

Unlike previous campaigns, the candidates and their parties are going beyond wearing Mexican hats and kissing Hispanic babies at Piñata parties. This time, the candidates are reaching out to Latino voters in Spanish in ads that are accent free and offer national appeal to Cubans and Mexicans alike.

The reason is simple. In an election that is expected to be close, Hispanics are a growing political force in several of the key swing states, including Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona.

``In those battleground states there's no question that the Latino vote can be the swing vote,'' said Maria Cardona, senior vice president of the New Democrat Network, one of a number of anti-Bush groups working to offset Republican fundraising advantages.

In 2000, almost 6 million Hispanics voted nationwide. NALEO, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, issued a report recently predicting an increase of 1 million Hispanic voters this November.

NALEO, which is nonpartisan, projects 838,000 Hispanics will to go to the polls in Florida and 202,000 in New Mexico. Both states were close in 2000, with Bush winning Florida by 537 votes and Gore winning New Mexico by 366 votes.

The $5 million ad campaign by the New Democrat Network is bridging a critical gap in Sen. John Kerry's campaign, which had to pull its first Spanish-language ads after an embarrassing misstep.

The ad, which began running Memorial Day weekend and featured Kerry as a war veteran along with the names of Latino veterans, was pulled after some of the veterans' family members complained they were not asked for permission to use their names or images.

The ads are "being re-edited to include only those who had expressly given permission," said Mark Kornblau, a Kerry spokesman.

He said the consultant who made the ads resigned and no replacement has been chosen.

"I'm sure we will move quickly to make sure we continue communicating effectively with Hispanics," Kornblau said.

The Bush campaign has run Spanish-language ads in a number of states since March. The ads portray Bush as a strong leader who contrasts well against Kerry, whom Republicans accuse of being a waffler. They also accuse Kerry of planning to raise taxes by $900 million during his first 100 days in office.

The New Democrat Network ads do not mention Kerry by name. Instead, the political commercials ask Hispanics to join the Democratic Party or criticize Bush. NDN's ads are aimed at immigrant Hispanic voters who Cardona said are not as familiar with the political system as the second- and third-generation Hispanics that Democrats typically courted in the past. To target these more recent arrivals the ads have to be in Spanish because many are simply more comfortable in their native language.

A new poll by Bendixen and Associates found almost 80 percent of Florida Hispanic voters watch Spanish-language television. That viewership is critical in such key states as Florida and Nevada where two of five Hispanic voters are undecided, the study found.

"People have noticed the ads on television," said Alvaro Fernandez, regional director for the liberal Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in Florida.

"There is a feeling among some people who say they want to get to know more about John Kerry. This is very different from what people were saying in 2000 when they would tell you they knew who they were going to vote for. Now they seem uncertain."

The ads also underscore the tightrope both Democrats and Republicans are walking in trying to reach such a broad electorate that includes Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Colombians, as well as second generation Latinos who may not share their parents' party affiliation.

But consultants such as Sergio Bendixen insist the ads are as effective in Florida as they are in California.

"The message isn't different for Hispanics than it is for everybody else," said Bendixen. "What unites the Hispanic voter in Florida and nationally are issues that impact their quality of life, and that is jobs, minimum wage, public education and access to affordable health care.''

Bush has tried to energize his Cuban base in recent months, issuing a report last month that called for tightening travel and other sanctions against the island's communist government. The report was well received by hardliners in the community, but has isolated moderates and more recent arrivals who say the new restrictions only hurt families.

Diaz-Balart, one of four Cuban-Americans in Congress, said the big advantage Bush and his brother Jeb Bush have is that they are comfortable among Hispanics and know their issues. The governor's wife Columba was born in Mexico and both brothers speak at least some Spanish.

``It's in their blood, literally,'' Diaz-Balart said. ``Hispanics for them are part of the family.''

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