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Obama Confronts Ethnic Tensions In Bid for Votes

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez speak at rally last week in Salinas, Calif.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez speak at rally last week in Salinas, Calif. (By Paul Sakuma -- Associated Press)

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By Karl Vick and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 1, 2008

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 31 -- In a sun-drenched community college courtyard in the heart of East Los Angeles on Thursday, Sen. Barack Obama tried to confront one of his greatest obstacles to doing well on Super Tuesday next week: winning over Latino voters.

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About 1,200 people -- a mix mostly of Hispanics and African Americans -- listened as local Latino elected officials urged them to support Obama. Several made explicit comparisons between the senator from Illinois and 1968 Democratic presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy, who along with President John F. Kennedy had strong backing among Latinos, and whose brother Edward M. Kennedy, a senator from Massachusetts, endorsed Obama this week.

Then Obama took the lectern and plunged into his familiar theme of national reconciliation, applying it specifically to the history of tensions between Hispanics and African Americans. He started by telling his audience that he has allied himself with Latinos from his days as a community organizer in Chicago.

"It's so important to come together," he said. "We've heard the cynical talk about how black folks, white folks, Latinos will not come together; we've heard talk about the so-called black-brown divide; and whenever I hear this, I take it seriously, because I'm reminded of the Latino brothers and sisters I worked alongside on the streets of Chicago two decades ago."

Hispanic voters here say Obama has a lot of ground to make up before Tuesday, when Democrats in California and 21 other states will vote. Obama is contending not only with the legacy of friction between blacks and Hispanics -- a relationship that is particularly complex in Los Angeles -- but also with a more basic problem: Many Los Angeles Latinos just don't know much about him and feel more comfortable with his opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.).

"It's the marquee value. They still remember [President Bill] Clinton and those whole eight years. Obama comes out of nowhere, and Latinos are like, 'What? An African American?' " said Herbert Siguenza, a Latino theater troupe member who came to see the candidate. "He's won over liberal Latinos like me, but for more recent immigrants, he's unknown. They recognize the Clintons and are comfortable with them."

The stakes for Obama are high. He lost the Nevada caucuses in large part because of his steep deficit among that state's Hispanic voters, and Clinton's lead among Hispanics in California -- 40 percent of the population and maybe 20 percent of the Democratic electorate -- is the main reason she has an edge in the ultimate Super Tuesday prize.

Yet recent polls show the race in California tightening, and Obama got a big boost this week among Hispanic voters with the endorsement of Edward Kennedy and his niece Caroline Kennedy, John Kennedy's daughter, with ads now already up on television here with Caroline Kennedy comparing Obama to her father.

The Obama campaign attributes his weakness with Hispanic voters to a general unawareness of his strong ties with Latinos in Illinois or of his role in pushing comprehensive immigration policy revisions in the Senate. Obama is an outspoken supporter of the Dream Act, which would allow high school students who are illegal immigrants and want to attend college or enlist in the military a route to eligibility for legal status and to obtaining loans. He also favors giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, which Clinton opposes after initially hedging on the issue.

"I know I can get Latino voters if they know my track record," Obama said in a recent interview with reporters. "The challenge we've got is we've got to do it very quickly. We have such a short span of time."

Members of the Hispanic community say, though, that the Obama campaign would be further along in educating voters about his background had it made a more visible attempt to win Latino support earlier. Voters such as Victor Castellanos are not good news for the campaign.

"I haven't heard anything about Obama. I haven't heard him talking to us, so my vote is with Clinton," said Castellanos, at the butcher counter in an East Los Angeles market this week. "I've heard of him, but not enough."


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