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Republicans Open a Big Drive to Appeal to Hispanic Voters

by Don Van Natta, Jr.

January 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JOSE, Calif., Jan. 14 -- After the lights had dimmed in a hotel meeting room here, Republican officials introduced a 60-second television commercial that they say will help court Hispanic voters, whose rapidly growing population makes them a political force that could swing the largest states in the presidential election this fall.

The advertisement features a patriotic narrative delivered by an elderly Hispanic man at a Fourth of July celebration while four generations of his family wave American flags, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and take several whacks at a red-white-and-blue piñata.

"You know," says the man, who gives his name as Joe Guerra in spots produced both in English and in Spanish, "even my 95-year-old father is today a Republican. He passed his values along to me, and I passed them along to my children and my grandchildren. When people ask me why I am a Republican, I tell them it is because my family's values are the values of the Republican Party."

When the lights went up, many officials attending this winter meeting of the Republican National Committee expressed enthusiasm for the commercial, the first of several that the party will run this year in an aggressive $10 million advertising campaign aimed at Hispanic voters.

The advertising campaign in turn is part of a larger Republican drive to woo Hispanics, who have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in recent national elections.

The push, which Republican officials call "unprecedented," is crucial to the party's future, said Jim Nicholson, chairman of the national committee.

"The Latino community is in play in this election like never before," Mr. Nicholson said at a news conference here. "And they're sending this message: 'We're open to change. Persuade us. Make your best case.' I'm here to promise you that we will."

Indeed, Mr. Nicholson said the attention bestowed on Hispanic voters this year would equal that lavished on "soccer moms" in 1996.

In public forums and closed-door sessions at their meeting here in the heart of Silicon Valley, party leaders are formulating strategy. While there has been little public talk of fund-raising plans, the officials have discussed any number of other topics, including the uses of new technology, the 2004 primary schedule and efforts to reach out to women and African-Americans.

But most Republican leaders said their most important challenge was to attract more Hispanic voters, in a manner that one Republican consultant, Frank Guerra, described as "sustained and sincere."

The number of Hispanics in the United States has grown so rapidly that they are expected to overtake African-Americans as the nation's largest minority group by 2005 and to account for 25 percent of the population by 2050. The states with the largest Hispanic populations -- California, Texas, New York and Florida -- currently account for 144 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.

"We are dealing now with numbers that no one can ignore," said Lionel Sosa, chief executive of Garcia LKS, a San Antonio advertising firm that specializes in marketing to Hispanics.

"The party that wins the Hispanic vote and keeps the Hispanic vote will be the majority party over the next 30 years."

Several Republican officials acknowledged that they would need more than a well-produced advertisement to attract larger numbers of Hispanics.

Garabed Haytaian, the Republican state chairman in New Jersey, said, "It's going to take a large commitment of resources -- money from the party to help Hispanic candidates win."

Jenny Backus, press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, criticized the new commercial as "a simplistic, somewhat patronizing message" to Hispanics.

"It's like the Republicans have not learned the lesson of New Coke," Ms. Backus said. "They are trying to sell their product, their issues agenda, to people who don't like the taste. People have long memories, and this approach won't erase the divisive rhetoric on immigration that the Republican Party has used in the past."

While Hispanics are far from a monolithic group -- polls show that they often most closely identify with their particular country of origin or ancestry -- Republican leaders said this week that the party shared with them "the values that matter: a commitment to family, a strong work ethic, a love of country and of freedom, a belief in opportunity and a willingness to accept personal responsibility."

If recent election results are any guide, though, Hispanics as a whole feel they share far more with the Democrats. Hispanics went in large numbers for Bill Clinton: 72 percent of their vote in 1996, to 21 percent for Bob Dole, and 61 percent in 1992, to 25 percent for George Bush.

Despite those results, and despite polls that showed the Democrats' hold on Hispanics growing stronger in the 1990's, Republican officials said they were encouraged by a survey conducted by a Republican pollster, Lance Tarrance.

That survey, of 1,000 Hispanics interviewed last month in Houston, identified 45 percent as "hard-core Democrats" and 30 percent as "hard-core Republicans."

There was a 25 percent "target group" of undecided Hispanic voters that Republicans say they will try to attract.

"If we don't get 40 percent of the Hispanic vote over the next generation, we probably won't be having a meeting of this size," Mr. Tarrance said at a panel discussion here on Thursday.

The Republican bid for Hispanics will be difficult in California, where exit polls in 1998 showed that 78 percent had voted for Democrats, and just 17 percent for Republicans, in races for Congress and governor. Other polls have also shown a pronounced anti-Republican sentiment among California Hispanics, attributed mainly to the policies of Pete Wilson, who won a second term as governor in 1994 by appealing to the state's anti-immigration sentiment.

In Texas, on the other hand, Gov. George W. Bush, who often speaks Spanish at campaign events in largely Hispanic neighborhoods, won re-election in 1998 with 49 percent of the Hispanic vote.

"Attracting Latinos in Texas will be easier," said Mr. Sosa, the advertising executive. "California will be tougher, maybe a lot tougher."

Equally challenging will be New York, where 86 percent of the Hispanic vote went to Mr. Clinton in 1996.

Mr. Bush's main challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona, who received most of the Hispanic vote in his last election, acknowledged today that his party has been badly scarred by battles over bilingual education, immigration and affirmative action.

"It took a long time to cause the Hispanics to leave our party," Mr. McCain said between campaign stops in New Hampshire, "and it's going to take a very long time to get them back, especially in California. We have a long way to go."

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