Vice President Gore came to George W. Bush's home state today and attacked the Republican presidential front-runner for embracing policies that have hurt Latinos.

Speaking before the national convention of the largest Latino advocacy organization in the United States, Gore criticized the Texas governor for presiding over a state where a quarter of the children have no health insurance and more than half of the uninsured are Latino. He also criticized Republicans for proposing a huge tax cut without dedicating "one dime" to strengthen Medicare, which provides health insurance to 2 million elderly and disabled Latinos.

In a warmly received speech flavored liberally with Spanish phrases, Gore also joined in the criticism of Bush for declining an invitation to address the National Council of La Raza, whose convention here concludes tonight.

First, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ended his introduction of local dignitaries by telling the crowd in Spanish: "I haven't introduced the governor of Texas because I don't see him here."

Then Gore, also speaking in Spanish, told the 2,300 Latino activists gathered for his speech: "I want to explain why I am here today. I love and respect the Latino community." Gore aides made clear that the line was aimed at Bush, who is vacationing in Maine.

Karen Hughes, Bush's communications director, responded to Gore's criticism by noting that Bush recently signed legislation that she said will "dramatically increase insurance for poor children" in Texas. The measure, approved this spring by the Texas legislature, would insure children in families whose income is up to 200 percent of the poverty level.

Hughes said Bush has a record that is "strongly supported" by Latinos and criticized Gore's tactic as an example of "the old-style attack politics the American people are sick and tired of."

Gore's pointed references to Bush underscored Democratic concern not only with securing the Latino vote, but with undercutting the strong support Bush and GOP presidential candidate John McCain have received from Latino voters. In his last reelection bid, Bush received 40 percent of the Latino vote. Meanwhile, McCain has received a majority of Arizona's Hispanic vote in both of his successful Senate campaigns.

"It certainly means any [Democratic] candidate trying to woo the Hispanic vote will have to work much harder than expected," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.). "Now you've got [Republican] candidates who have some understanding and familiarity with the Hispanic vote and a bit of a track record. Rarely could you have said that before about Republican presidential candidates."

The battle for the Latino vote is crucial to both parties because Latinos have been showing signs of coalescing into a political force. Jolted by a wave of GOP-led proposals across the country to limit immigration, impose English-only provisions and deny social service benefits to illegal residents, the Latino electorate grew by 29 percent between 1992 and 1996.

Now, Latinos account for 11 percent of the nation's population and about 5 percent of the overall electorate. But the importance of their vote is magnified because it is concentrated in five electorally rich states where their strong support could prove decisive. Together, California, Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois are home to 76 percent of the nation's Hispanic population.

"There are different goals here for Republicans and Democrats," said Harry P. Pachon, president of Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a California think tank that explores Hispanic issues. "The question becomes margin of victory. Will the Republicans get 20, 30 or 40 percent? The margin will make all the difference."

In 1996, President Clinton received 72 percent of the Hispanic vote, a margin that helped power him to victory in such key states as California and Texas. But Democrats have not always done so well with Hispanic voters. In 1984, Ronald Reagan won the support of two in five Hispanic voters. And in Florida, Republican Jeb Bush won a majority of the Hispanic vote in his successful 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

On Monday, McCain was greeted with a standing ovation after delivering a speech that touched on his support for school vouchers and the need for campaign finance reform. He also noted that he has opposed English-only initiatives and what he called "divisive" efforts to outlaw bilingual education.

"I believe in the politics of addition," McCain said. "I am proud that I may be the only Republican who has run a statewide campaign and won a majority of the Hispanic vote twice."

While some Hispanic leaders have criticized Bush for declining invitations to speak here and before several other Latino groups in recent weeks, he has also made a point of campaigning in Hispanic communities. Also, Bush has won praise for appointing Latinos to several state posts.

"I don't think you are going to win the Latino vote by eating tamales at a public function and saying muchas gracias," said Raul Yzaguirre, La Raza president. "I think whoever is the winning candidate in our community is going have to show that he or she is going to make some appointments in our community."

Gore's supporters say they hope to counter the relative strength of Bush and other GOP candidates among Latinos by linking them to other Republicans who are perceived by some as hostile to Latinos.

The vice president also has used the perks of office to woo Latinos. He has announced a new Hispanic education plan that targets about $1 billion in federal aid to disadvantaged students and children with limited English skills. He also spices his speeches before Hispanic audiences with Spanish phrases, learned during a summer in Mexico and polished in conversation with aides Roger Salazar and Alejandro Cabrera.

"When you approach people who are trying to learn English or know the embarrassment of not speaking English well, having someone make the effort is really appreciated," Becerra said.

Much of that strategy was on display today, as he made veiled references critical of Bush, attacked GOP proposals that he said would be harmful to Latinos and promised to take initiatives to bolster education and improve health care.

"I want to do things the right way," Gore said, "not by letting people fend for themselves or hoping for crumbs of compassion."

Connolly reported from Washington. Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report from Washington.