Candidates Pushing Hard for the Latino Vote

"The Latino community holds this election in its hands," Barack Obama said.
"The Latino community holds this election in its hands," Barack Obama said. (By Jae C. Hong -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr. and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 14, 2008

SAN DIEGO, July 13 -- Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are aggressively courting Latino voters in the early stages of their election contest, as the presumptive Republican nominee looks to hold on to Latino-heavy states, such as New Mexico, that Obama hopes to turn blue.

"Make no mistake about it: The Latino community holds this election in its hands," Obama said Sunday at a conference of the National Council of La Raza, one of the nation's largest Latino civil rights groups. "Some of the closest contests this November are going to be in states like Florida, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico -- states with large Latino populations."

The two men face very different tasks. Obama is seeking to solidify his standing among a group that has historically leaned Democratic, whereas McCain is working to convince Latinos that he deserves their support, based on his stance on immigration and experience as a border-state lawmaker.

McCain will address La Raza on Monday, the third time in as many weeks the candidates will have courted Latino activists. They spoke last Tuesday in Washington at a conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens, and last month to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

On Friday, McCain's campaign began running ads appealing to Latinos in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, key states that backed President Bush in 2004 but which Obama hopes to pick off with a strong Latino turnout. The Democrat is running ads in those states as well, but none yet with Latino themes.

"If you have any doubt about whether you can make a difference, just remember how, back in 2004, 40,000 registered Latino voters in New Mexico didn't turn out on Election Day," Obama said Sunday in San Diego. He noted that Democratic candidate John F. Kerry "lost that state by fewer than 6,000 votes -- 6,000 votes."

Despite becoming the nation's largest minority group over the past decade, Hispanics lag behind other groups in voting. According to the Census Bureau, 58 percent of eligible Hispanics were registered to vote in 2004, compared with 75 percent of non-Hispanic whites and 69 percent of blacks.

A recent Gallup poll showed Obama leading McCain by 30 percentage points among Latinos, a larger margin than Kerry's 20 points over Bush in 2004 exit polls. But Obama lost badly to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) among Hispanics in Democratic primaries and told reporters Saturday night on the way to San Diego, "I'm not as well known in that community as I would like to be."

In his speech on Sunday, Obama cast his positions on spending more federal money to expand health care, create jobs and improve education as important for the Latino community as well as other Americans, and discussed his support for creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. His aides said they plan to start running ads on Spanish-language radio stations next week in key states and will keep them going through November.

McCain's aides acknowledge that he is trailing Obama among Latino voters, but they view this effort as crucial to making inroads so that he can hold on to states such as Florida and Colorado.

In a news conference with reporters Sunday, former U.S. treasurer Rosario Marin, a McCain supporter, said she is confident some independent and Democratic Latinos will back the Republican once they learn more about his record.

"The ones that know what the senator has done in this regard, they're very supportive of him," Marin said, referring to his work on immigration.

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