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Obama Narrowed the Gap

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

LAREDO, Tex., March 4 -- Jose Lopez had already spent three hours hammering Barack Obama signs into the ground when he drove up to an elementary school within sight of the Mexican border Tuesday morning. The 23-year-old college student grabbed six signs and carried them to the school's front entrance. He walked past a five-foot-high sign for Hillary Rodham Clinton and a dozen of her supporters before he finally found an empty patch of dirt.

"Hey!" a woman yelled as she spotted Lopez setting up. "You can't put those in the ground there. It's against city policy."

"Oh, right," Lopez said, scanning two dozen signs posted around him. "It's illegal -- unless you're putting up a sign for Clinton."

For Lopez and other Obama supporters here, Tuesday's primary marked the final day of an exhausting fight against the South Texas establishment. Hillary and Bill Clinton made three trips to Laredo in the past few months, and loyal Hispanics responded Tuesday night by voting in record numbers. Hispanics made up about one-third of total Texas voters. Laredo more than tripled its typical election turnout, forcing polls to stay open so late that some caucuses were delayed by an hour.

As early totals rolled in presaging Clinton's eventual victory, almost twice as many Hispanics had voted for Clinton.

Though Obama volunteers rushed around this city of 250,000 Tuesday in a last-minute effort to reach Hispanic voters, they feared just that outcome, believing that the primary had come too soon. All but one of the 60-plus elected officials here endorsed Clinton, and some Laredo voters entered their precincts wrongly thinking that Obama is a Muslim and an advocate of the Black power movement.

"We came in with a huge disadvantage, and we've introduced him more and more with pretty steady progress," said Carlos Odio, an Obama operative who works on Hispanic outreach in South Texas. "If we were down here for 10 months instead of one and [Obama] could make multiple visits, I'm sure we'd do very, very well. But it just came down to a matter of time and familiarity, and I'm not sure if people got to know him well enough."

At 59 polling stations across Laredo, both Democratic candidates attracted a record number of voters, a trend that swept across South Texas. And Tuesday's turnout was poised to surpass 40,000. Shortly after the polls opened, long lines of voters curled around the schools and libraries along the border. Shortly after polls closed, those lines had not subsided.

Both campaigns highlighted South Texas as an imperative target, and they brought one political star after another into this isolated region that no presidential candidate had visited in the past 20 years. Barack Obama ate tacos and toured the International Bridge in Brownsville; Hillary Clinton spoke about the North American Free Trade Agreement in Laredo, and her most popular Hispanic supporters -- Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, California Assembly Speaker Fabian N¿¿ez, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta -- spent considerable time in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lopez, who moved here from Mexico City 10 years ago and maintains dual citizenship, describes Laredo to his foreign friends as "an insulated bubble that nobody cared about before this campaign." It is a place, he said, where politicians often stay in office for decades, because a loyal electorate almost always votes for the person they know. And from the beginning of this campaign, Laredo felt familiar with Clinton.

"It's like every week somebody else is coming in to speak," said Sonia Melendez, a Clinton spokeswoman in Laredo. "And so how can Clinton lose support?"

And still, Obama supporters pinned their hopes Tuesday on complacency in the Clinton campaign. They believed Clinton supporters, convinced their candidate would win easily, might not bother to vote, much less to come back to precincts again for a nighttime caucus.

At Col Santos Benavides Elementary School north of the city, Maria Sosa spent her day holding an Obama sign and calling out to voters. She had come prepared for battle, with a dozen signs, 40 bottles of water and two other volunteers. "I wanted to make sure we basically outsupported the Clinton people," she said.

But when she showed up, Sosa found no Clinton supporters on site. She ended up having a relatively quiet day, save for the occasional honk from an Obama supporter driving by.

"On the Clinton side, the whole attitude has been 'Let's go to headquarters and celebrate this thing,' " Sosa said. "It's the type of situation where maybe they took it for granted, and that's great. Because maybe they win in Laredo, but they are just letting us sneak in and come up with more votes."

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