By Krissah Williams Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. -- The monthly poker night held by members of the Latin-Anglo Alliance here is strictly social. No work. No politics.
It's a welcome break from the seemingly endless news of the nation's financial meltdown that has heightened their anxieties about the economy. Jobs in the area are stable, but these poker players are middle-aged and middle-class, with college tuition and retirement to worry about.
Their anxiety mirrors that of other Latinos, who are more likely than other groups to name the economy as their top issue in this election -- 60 percent do so, compared with 54 percent of all voters, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll. It also helps explain why Sen. John McCain is struggling to win over Hispanics, a group that many thought he would do reasonably well with only months ago.
Polls show Sen. Barack Obama leading McCain 2 to 1 among Hispanics, after being trounced by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton among such voters in the Democratic primaries. (President Bush won 40 percent of their vote in 2004.) More than two-thirds of Hispanics said they trust Obama to handle the economy, compared with 27 percent who named McCain.
Many here also said they remain upset about the ugly immigration debate last year in which many Republicans demanded full-scale deportation of illegal immigrants. Although McCain then favored a more moderate approach that was supported by many Hispanics, he has taken a somewhat harder line in the campaign and has not been able to overcome worries about his party on the issue.
The Hispanic vote could be decisive in Colorado, where the group makes up 12 percent of the electorate. Latino voters throughout the West feel empowered this year, particularly here and in New Mexico and Nevada, where their demographic growth and renewed political engagement have made them a force. The three states went for Bush four years ago but are now tossups or lean toward Obama. Most polls show Obama with a solid lead in Colorado.
In 2004, Bush's appeal to Latinos helped him win Colorado despite Democrats' besting Republicans for congressional and statewide offices. The Democratic winners included the Salazar bothers -- U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, moderate Democrats who are popular with Latino voters and could help drive support for Obama.
"When you have someone like Bush, who grew up in an environment where he really understood Latinos, it comes across in the way [he talked] to them. It's an approach," said Jorge Mursuli, president of Democracia USA, a nonpartisan voter group that registered 138,000 Hispanic voters, including a few thousand in Colorado. "He had a campaign that really understood how to reach the Latinos and how to be culturally competent. He scored big time. That's not happening now."
Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster and political consultant based in Denver, said Obama's use of strong Hispanic supporters could be a sufficient substitute for his lack of natural appeal because "a goodly number of them are rural conservatives or moderates, traditional in their religious practices, versus your more typical urban Latino who would share the values of the Democratic leadership." Aside from the Salazars, former Denver mayor Federico Peña and Gov. Bill Richardson of neighboring New Mexico are campaigning for Obama in Colorado.
McCain has tried to reach out with Spanish-language television ads, such as one titled "Riesgo" that calls Obama a risk for small-business owners and employees, and through supporters such as Gilberto Velez, chairman of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference board, who in a news conference last week encouraged Hispanics to vote for McCain because of his stance on abortion, same-sex marriage and other social issues.
In meetings with national Hispanic advocacy groups, McCain has talked about his familiarity with their culture as a resident of the border state of Arizona and has played up his personal ties with Latinos who have served in the military. His campaign has tried to remind Hispanics that he helped craft the failed immigration overhaul that was popular with many in their community. And last week, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was interviewed on Univision, the country's most popular Spanish-language TV network.
Still, the Republican is gaining no ground with Hispanics in polls.
Beyond the economy, many at the poker tables here attribute that to the bruising immigration debate in which Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo -- who represents a suburban Denver district -- was among the loudest proponents of deportation. Lydia DeLaRosa, a leader of the Latin-Anglo Alliance, says the immigration raids on a big meatpacking plant 200 miles away in Greeley still infuriate her.
"Even Mexicans who were born here were put on a bus and taken away," said the longtime Democrat.
Jerry Otero, a lawyer in Grand Junction whose Mexican American family has been in Colorado since the 1800s, said that in many ways Hispanic voters in this town of 48,000 are voting on the same issues as "Joe Blow Anglo down the street." Otero is a religious conservative who is drawn to Obama's campaign, but the Democrat's stance on abortion does not sit well with him.
"I just think it's terrible what's going on with some of that stuff," he said. "It's shocking to your conscience. Sometimes you can't vote what's economically your best choice. You have to vote the moral high ground."
But he hedges, saying that he also struggles with voting for McCain because he seems to be very "pro-wealthy" and that as a minority he would like to see Obama in office.
There is little talk of tension between blacks and Hispanics in this part of the state, which is predominantly Hispanic and white. After the Democratic primaries, when Clinton nearly swept the Latino vote in states such as California and Texas, pundits suggested that Latinos may not line up behind Obama because of tensions between their group and African Americans. But a recent Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Hispanics and 67 percent of blacks believe good relations exist between the groups.
Modesto Galvan, 55, a retired insurance agent in Grand Junction, is still disappointed that Clinton lost and considers himself a hesitant Obama supporter. "It took me awhile to vent," he said. "I voice my displeasure, but at the end of it I am a Democrat."
Even if he has lingering questions about Obama, Galvan said, "when people of color have to struggle so hard and so long, and you see someone aspiring to be the top person in this country, it is very difficult not to help them. We know how hard it is and how difficult it is. When we don't have people that look like us in positions of authority, we tend to lose."