If it's Wednesday, it must be the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's dinner.

Washington is deep into Hispanic Heritage Month, that annual lovefest for all things Latino. Last week, the Hispanic Heritage Awards rolled out the red carpet at the Kennedy Center. Tuesday night the Hispanic Arts Foundation lobbied for better roles in movies and television, and tonight Hispanic journalists will dole out awards.

Yesterday was the politicians' turn. In the afternoon, President Bush hosted a reception for Hispanic leaders at the White House. Last night, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry promised the 3,000 guests gathered at the Washington Convention Center for the black-tie dinner that he would champion minority issues.

"The Hispanic vote is critical this year," Kerry told the enthusiastic audience. "We can't afford to sit this one out and we can't leave it up to our neighbor -- and we won't. We can't afford to take any vote for granted -- and we won't. We can't afford four more years. My friends, I need your vote. Necesito su voto. And I need your help."

Bush also was invited to address the organization but declined. "He's the only president who has never accepted an invitation to come to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus galas," said Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.). "Three years he's been asked, three years he's said no."

Kerry made the most of it. To chants of "Ker-ry, Ker-ry, Ker-ry," he walked onstage hand in hand with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who spoke to the group Monday, and quickly lit into his political opponent.

"I'm running for president because we deserve a president who doesn't just meet with those he agrees with or gives the store away to. We deserve a president who's not afraid to sit down with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the National Council of La Raza, the NAACP, the Leadership Council and the Black Caucus," he said.

Despite the photo opportunities, the expensive brochures, the contrived overtures, Kerry said, the administration has repeatedly broken promises to the Hispanic and black communities on immigration reform, affirmative action, small business loans, bilingual education and jobs. "My friends, we deserve a president who doesn't just talk the talk. We deserve a president who walks the walk and speaks to the needs of the Hispanic community and the black community and all Americans."

Kerry promised to push for legislation to secure rights for farmworkers, to reduce health care premiums and cover all children, and to raise high school and college graduation rates for Hispanics. He received an extended standing ovation when he concluded in Spanish, telling the crowd that this was the most important election of their lifetime and asking for their votes.

Everyone likes to say how important the Hispanic vote will be this fall. "Our votes are truly up for grabs," said CHCI president Ingrid Duran. "We vote issues, not party."

The problem is leveraging those votes: Most Latino voters don't live in swing states and are quickly written off as being part of a red or a blue state. "One of the things we've been preaching is that we're never part of the platform," said Duran. "We're always the afterthought, not the inner circle."

The three most important issues for Latino voters are jobs, education and health care, said Jorge Ramos, Univision news anchor and author of "Latino Wave: How Hispanics Will Choose the Next President." Sixty-two percent of Hispanics voted for Al Gore in 2000, but Ramos says Latinos in Florida cast the crucial votes for Bush. This time around, he believes neither presidential candidate has seriously addressed these issues; he told National Public Radio last weekend that neither candidate deserves the Hispanic vote. (Ramos was scheduled to attend the dinner but bowed out at the last minute.)

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson calls the Latino vote "a sleeping giant about to explode." Both parties have poured time and money into bringing Hispanics to the polls in November: Estimates are that only 8 million to 9 million of the 20 million eligible Hispanic voters will cast their ballots.

Yesterday, Spanish-language ads for Kerry began running in Nevada, New Mexico and Florida describing him as an advocate for Hispanic families. "One out of every three Latinos in this country lives without medical insurance," one ad says. "John Kerry wants all children to have access to health insurance."

Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and community development organization, said he wanted specifics from Kerry, not platitudes. "What I want to hear is, 'Within 100 days, I will commit to having a comprehensive immigration reform bill before Congress.' And I want to hear him say, 'Within 100 days, I'll give you a plan for eliminating the $1,000 differential between what we spend on Latino kids for their education and the rest of the children in public schools.' "

The larger question is whether the candidates' promises truly address Latino issues, or is it just "pinata politics," as Yzaguirre calls it.

"You get teased, and you occasionally hit the pinata and lots of goodies fall down," he explained. "The candies make you feel good for a little while, but they don't fundamentally change things and provide you with sustenance."

After dinner, awards were presented to United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta and UFW president Arturo Rodriguez. Cuban salsa singer Albita provided the entertainment. And no -- at least on this night -- there wasn't a pinata in sight.

Sen. John Kerry and his wife, Teresa, at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala.Kevin Hanes, left, chats with CHCI chairman Ciro Rodriguez, his daughter Xochil and his wife, Carolina, at the institute's dinner at the Washington Convention Center. Institute president Ingrid Duran, below, also attended.