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Battle Emerges Over Latino Votes
Democrats, GOP Woo New Citizens

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 10, 2002; Page A06

LAS VEGAS -- Myra Salguero had been a U.S. citizen for about five minutes when GOP volunteer Maxine Clark nabbed her. As Salguero made her way from the Lloyd D. George Federal Building in Las Vegas after taking her citizenship oath, Clark pulled her aside, deftly switched to Spanish and suggested she register to vote. Salguero, a Guatemala native who later told a reporter she had "never been involved in political stuff," promptly signed up as a Republican.

"We have a good example with the president now," said Salguero, who prepares a daily buffet for hungry gamblers at one of the city's major hotels. "He's doing a lot of things right."

Each Friday afternoon, the George Federal Building becomes a battleground for this city's Latino vote -- and a symbol of the broader nationwide fight for the booming Hispanic electorate. Volunteers from both parties man tables, jockeying for the newly minted citizens as they emerge from the weekly swearing-in ceremony.

Latinos account for 12.5 percent of the nation's population, compared with 9 percent a decade ago. With control of the House and Senate up for grabs this fall, they compose a vital voting bloc in many competitive races.

Due in part to the anti-immigration rhetoric of former California governor Pete Wilson and several other Republicans in the 1990s, the Democratic Party has enjoyed solid majorities of Hispanic support in most areas outside Miami's Cuban community. Latino voters in 2000 backed Al Gore over George W. Bush, 62 percent to 35 percent.

But President Bush -- a former Texas governor who embraced Mexican immigrants in a manner sharply different from Wilson's approach -- gets high approval ratings from many Hispanics. That has prompted both parties to launch unprecedented efforts for Latino votes.

Some of these moves have attracted widespread attention, such as the Republican National Committee's recent decision to launch a million-dollar public affairs program on Spanish-language television, or the offer of free Spanish classes to any interested party leader. But most of the organizing takes place at the political grass roots, far from the national spotlight.

In January, the Democratic National Committee sent a full-time staffer to work with Latino politicians and voters in North Carolina, a state that hosts pivotal races in the House and Senate this fall -- and whose Latino population grew 400 percent over the past decade. DNC officials also dispatched an organizer to help set up the Arkansas legislature's first Hispanic Caucus, and they sent two aides to promote Oregon's election of its first statewide Latina officeholder. By this fall, Democrats plan to have Latino-oriented programs in at least 15 states.

Republicans, meanwhile, have pledged to register half a million new voters in California by Election Day, many of whom will be Hispanic. They have begun a broader "New Citizens Initiative," targeting naturalization ceremonies in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

The RNC is staging numerous Hispanic "Team Leader" events, two-hour sessions in which officials convey the GOP agenda to community leaders and ordinary citizens. Such events are planned for Miami this month and for 10 other cities -- stretching from Atlanta to Portland, Ore. -- by November.

The party has retained GOP consultant Ada Diaz Kirby in Colorado to appeal to Hispanics, who make up nearly 18 percent of the state's population. Kirby helped run the party's booth at Denver's recent Cinco de Mayo celebration, handing out a thousand copies of a glossy photo of Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"The picture was a real hit," said Kirby, who said she danced to mariachi music as she distributed GOP leaflets to the crowd. "That is the way we were able to attract attention."

The 2001-02 reapportionment process, in which state lawmakers have redrawn congressional lines to reflect new census figures, has underscored Latinos' importance in the battle for Congress. Their votes could be critical in at least nine competitive House seats in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina and Texas.

"The road to a Democratic majority clearly comes through the Latino community," said Rep. Robert Menendez (N.J.), vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.

Democrats note that 92 percent of the nation's elected Latino officials belong to their party. They say their party's positions on immigration and education give them a natural advantage with most Hispanics.

House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has focused intensely on the Latino vote lately, studying Spanish in Mexico, appearing almost weekly on Spanish-language television and hiring a full-time aide to reach out to Hispanic journalists. Gephardt issues a weekly column in Spanish, holds roundtables with Spanish-language reporters and editorial boards and, like the White House, now has a Spanish-language Web site.

But Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen -- who recently conducted a survey of Latino voters for the centrist New Democrat Network and Menendez -- warns that Bush has developed a warm rapport with Hispanics similar to the bond that former president Bill Clinton enjoyed with African Americans. His poll showed that Bush is now almost even with Gore in popularity among Latinos. And although congressional Republicans do not enjoy similar ratings, respondents said they were nearly 40 percent more likely to support a candidate endorsed by Bush.

"President Bush will be a very positive weapon for the Republicans, and a very dangerous weapon for the Democratic Party when it comes to the November elections," Bendixen said.

Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted Bush will campaign for several vulnerable House members, providing them with a seal of approval among Latino voters.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Sen. Kenneth D. McClintock, a member of the Democratic National Committee, cautioned that his party has not done enough to woo recent immigrants, whom strategists call "opportunity Hispanics" because they are not yet partial to government programs or one of the major parties.

"Once a Hispanic votes for a Republican one time, you've lost your political virginity and become a swing voter," he said.

But Democratic officials say they have a multiyear, multimillion-dollar campaign to reinforce their existing ties with Latinos. The party is conducting Hispanic-only polls and focus groups for the first time. Hispanic Democrats in the House have launched a political action committee and fundraising blitz to steer hundreds of thousands of dollars to several high-profile Latino candidates this year.

Clark County Commissioner Dario Herrera (D), who hopes Latinos will give him the edge in his closely contested race against state Sen. Jon Porter (R) in Nevada's new 3rd District, said Hispanics will "have a big impact on races across America."

"Fortunately I think Democrats are responding with public policy ideas, and Republicans are responding to them with symbolic gestures," Herrera said.

Latinos make up 15 percent of the district's population, and Porter has courted them as well. Last year he joined Herrera in pushing successfully for a permanent Mexican consulate in Las Vegas.

But Herrera -- whose popularity dipped this spring after he battled allegations that he improperly aided his wife's business and received a public relations contract from the city's housing authority -- sees Latino voters as essential to his victory this fall.

A 29-year-old Cuban American, Herrera was in the George Federal Building to chat with newly sworn-in citizens one Friday in June. The next morning he braved nearly 100-degree heat to launch a registration drive in one of his district's predominantly Latino neighborhoods. Chatting in Spanish as he went door to door with his wife and aides, he assured prospective voters it would take only "un momentico" to fill out the necessary forms.

Northeast Las Vegas proved fertile ground for Herrera, who spoke with gardener Ernesto Senda about his children and teased Ricardo Bravo's younger brother as he darted around the family's garage. Senda and Bravo signed on as Democrats, praising Bush but suggesting they preferred the Democrats' views on education and immigration.

"Democrats have been known to help out a lot of minorities, which I am a part of," said Bravo, a casino pay clerk. But even as he pledged his loyalty to the Democrats, Bravo indicated Herrera would have to fight for his vote.

"I'm still looking at both sides," he said.

2002 The Washington Post Company