Surprise: A survey conducted earlier this month by pollsters Celinda Lake, a Democrat, and Ed Goeas, a Republican, found that Hispanic voters across the nation prefer Republican George W. Bush to either of the Democratic candidates.

The 1,000 likely Hispanic voters surveyed favored Bush over Al Gore 51 percent to 38 percent, and over Bill Bradley 52 percent to 32 percent.

Those Republican margins of victory would not be shocking in Bush's own Texas, where Bush has won over the traditionally Democratic Mexican American electorate during the past two gubernatorial elections. The margin would be a shock in Florida, but only because it is expected to be much larger. Cuban Americans there have given Republican presidential candidates upward of 75 percent of their vote.

But this is a national survey, with the solidly Democratic Puerto Ricans of New York and Mexican Americans of California included.

Yet there it is: 51-38 and 52-32. The Hispanic vote in presidential elections has always gone to the Democrat, in a big way. So if this holds up in November, it will be a political shift of historic proportions.

My humble prediction: Democrats still will carry the national Hispanic vote. Much of the support for Bush is due to the novelty of watching a Republican who speaks Spanish and actually goes out of his way to embrace Hispanics. By November, the novelty will wear off for the millions of Hispanic voters who have never voted for a Republican presidential candidate.

Still, Bush (assuming he wins the nomination) will do much better than any Republican ever has, and those votes might well make the difference in the race overall.

The high-water mark to beat is Ronald Reagan's 37 percent in 1984. Reagan reached that number even though he did not court the Hispanic vote as assiduously as Bush and Republicans in general have been doing this year. Bush will beat that percentage easily, if he is the nominee. Mid to high 40s for George W.

He will win overwhelmingly in Florida, as Republicans used to before Dole, who got only 46 percent in 1996. Two reasons: one, Elian Gonzalez. Janet Reno's ruling to send the boy back and Clinton's wishy-washy pronouncements in the case mean that Florida's Cuban Americans will not trust Democrats even though Bradley and Gore have taken Miami-friendly positions. Two, George W. and his brother Jeb (who just happens to be governor of the state) are perceived to be as pro-Hispanic as any Republican can possibly be, a stark contrast to Dole, who feared losing the hard-right vote and never fully denounced the anti-immigrant tone of much Republican rhetoric that year.

But that just takes things back to the way they used to be. The big difference between this and most other races is that a Republican will win the Hispanic vote in Texas. Bush will win in his home state, even if not by Florida-sized margins. Texas's Mexican American voters have long been Democrats, but they have also been more conservative than their counterparts in California, the other big Mexican American state. As they showed in the last gubernatorial election, they have no problem voting for a Republican who is moderate, local and simpatico to boot.

The New York Hispanic vote is a lost cause for Bush. The Puerto Rican electorate in the state is as liberal as the black electorate, and there is no reason to believe it will endorse a boy from Texas who is no liberal. Still, Bush will do better than Dole did in '96. The number of Hispanic voters who are not Puerto Ricans--mostly Dominicans and Colombians--has grown and their votes are up for grabs, because most are new citizens without the Puerto Ricans' decades-long history of allegiance to the Democrats. Besides, Bush gives politically moderate Puerto Ricans a candidate who is not a liberal and not associated with the anti-Hispanic wing of the GOP.

And then there is the big question mark: California. Four years ago, coming off the Pete Wilson years of GOP attacks on Latinos, Dole won only 20 percent of the Hispanic vote. But now Wilson is a bad memory. It is no longer considered ethnic treason to vote for a Republican. If Bush can get close to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, it might make the difference if the statewide race is tight. And California's electoral votes might make the difference if the national race is tight.

The first chance to make a good impression is right after New Hampshire, with the California and New York primaries on March 7. Texas and Florida come the week after that. Count on hearing a lot of Spanish on the campaign trail.

2000, King Features Syndicate Inc.