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Bedrock Values Tap Votes Of Hispanics


November 7, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE ORLANDO SENTINEL. All rights reserved.

John Kerry supports contraceptives in public schools. He voted for government-subsidized abortions. The highest court in Kerry's state of Massachusetts supports gay marriage. Kerry flip-flopped on the war on terror. In the end, those were the themes that Republicans used in campaign ads that swayed Central Florida's strong-family values, veteran-rich Puerto Rican voters.

As I warned the Democrats in a column two weeks before the election, the Bush campaign simply was making a better case in Spanish-language ads to Hispanic voters. I noted that "there's trouble in paradise for Kerry if he thinks the economy, education and health care will trump family values" among Hispanic voters. Sure enough, the president won re-election garnering higher levels of support from Latino voters in the Southwest, the South and in Florida than four years ago.

The Kerry camp never even tried to rebut the GOP's family-values theme head-on. The Dems didn't highlight Kerry's support for faith-based initiatives, for instance, or have him make a direct appeal, as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s, that his goal was to make abortion rare by improving the economy and providing more services to struggling families.

Clearly, the president made inroads among Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and other Hispanic voters in America's suburbs and rural areas from California to Georgia. And once again Puerto Ricans at Florida's electoral ground zero, the Interstate-4 corridor through Orlando, proved to be swing voters who move to their own rhythm. That's not surprising since one in five of those voters is not affiliated with either party.

This time, Hispanic voters leaned Republican in Osceola County, thanks in part to Puerto Rican Republican Rep. John Quiñones' re-election bid, even though they supported Al Gore in 2000. And the Hispanic vote seemed to break about even in Orange County. Overall, Bush won 54 percent of Florida's Hispanic vote, according to exit polls -- about 10 points higher than four years ago. State GOP officials figure that it may have been as high as 58 percent when absentee ballots are taken into account.

Divisive issues of gay marriage, abortion rights and Bush's macho "my way or the highway" leadership style in the war on terror helped him among Hispanics, no question. In fact, the gay marriage issue seems to have helped Bush get 11 percent of Florida's black vote, too -- up from only 5 percent in 2000.

Mel Martinez's Senate bid surely helped Bush with the Cuban vote in Miami-Dade County, and the GOP estimates that Martinez got between 45 percent and 48 percent of the predominantly Puerto Rican Hispanic vote in Central Florida, too.

The GOP worked the Hispanic faithful. Some 6,500 Hispanic volunteers knocked on their neighbors' doors from Tampa to Orlando, according to former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas.

"It was an all family-values effort. It was all about turnout. We got more people out," Cardenas told me.

Every precinct throughout Florida with crucial Hispanic votes had a GOP precinct contact coordinating volunteers. Meanwhile, the Kerry camp ushered in paid staff from other states to get out the vote. The GOP's committed volunteers did a much better job. In fact, the Democrats' push to inspire the youth vote proved fruitless, too.

John Kerry took Orange County by barely 800 votes, but that may be attributed more to a stronger Democratic machine in more cosmopolitan Orlando than in identity-stricken Kissimmee.

After all, Orlando has a Democratic mayor, an openly gay council member and a large black population, plus the strongest labor unions in Central Florida. By contrast, Osceola County's Democratic Party seems stuck in Dixieland, continuing to ignore Kissimmee's Hispanic population of about 40 percent.

The Democratic Party might assume Bush used fear tactics to win, but that would be making a lazy assumption to excuse the Kerry campaign's seeming inability to talk about values in ways that could connect to Hispanics, and by extension, to most on-the-fence voters.

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