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Democrats At Last Refocus On Hispanic Voters


July 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved. 

An important group of Democrats has decided to put extra time, money and effort into wooing the Hispanic voters that their party often takes for granted. It's a smart move, even if it has been too long in coming.

Indeed, some Democrats argue that the timing of the so-called Demócratas Unidos project could not be better because President Bush, the politician most responsible for the recent defection of Hispanic voters to the Republican side, is showing some vulnerability on issues important to Hispanics.

That, at least, is the message that members of the New Democrat Network, a political action committee associated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, are drawing from a poll that it recently commissioned.

NDN is taking the poll's findings across the country to help local Democrats better connect with what the Census Bureau now says is the nation's largest minority group. Demócratas Unidos also aims to create a national agenda that Democrats can use to remind Hispanic voters that there are still significant differences between the two major parties on issues such as immigration reform and education spending. Not coincidentally, those are two topics identified as vulnerabilities for Bush in a national poll of 800 Latino registered voters conducted for NDN by Bendixen & Associates, a Florida-based Democratic polling company that specializes in Hispanic surveys.

''The personal and emotional connection that the president worked so hard to develop (with Hispanic voters) may be in jeopardy,'' said Sergio Bendixen. He cites poll findings that Bush has hurt his credibility among Hispanics by neglecting Latin America, most especially by not working with Mexican President Vicente Fox on an immigration agreement. About 69 percent of poll respondents believe that Bush ''broke his promise'' to focus on Latin America.

Also potentially troubling for Bush are the poll's findings that 60 percent of Hispanic voters believe more spending on public schools is the best way to improve education. Bendixen said that Bush needs to increase education funding despite the deficit. Three-quarters of Bendixen's respondents said it would ''offend them a lot'' for a candidate to get elected promising to help schools, then not adequately fund them once in office.

Bendixen says Bush's wavering Hispanic support shows up as a 10 percent drop over one year in two polls that his company did for NDN. In May 2002, 44 percent of the Hispanic voters whom Bendixen polled supported Bush, compared with 46 percent who supported Al Gore. But in Bendixen's 2003 survey, completed last month, only 34 percent of Hispanics supported Bush, while 48 percent said that they would support an unspecified ``nominee of the Democratic Party.''

It is noteworthy that the Demócratas Unidos project was first made public in Washington last week at a meeting of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, whose 18 members are all Democrats. Last year the three Hispanic Republicans in Congress formed their own GOP-focused caucus.

The fact that Hispanic Republicans no longer feel a need to affiliate with a larger, more visible caucus dominated by Democrats shows how confident the GOP is that Bush's personal popularity with Hispanics can transfer to his party.

But it would be as big a mistake for Republicans to take Hispanics for granted as it has been for the Democrats. There have been Republican presidents in the recent past, such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who got lots of Hispanic votes. Yet whatever loyalty they generated for the GOP has long since been eroded by Republican support for anti-immigrant measures such as California's Proposition 187 or by the Republican affiliation of anti-immigrant politicians such as former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.

''We're trying to convince as many Democrats as we can that they can no longer assume Latinos are part of the party's voter base,'' NDN Vice President Maria Cardona says. ``They are now swing voters, and we have to work to appeal to them.''

Give the New Democrats credit for trying. Nobody at the Democratic National Committee has shown such creativity lately, one reason why Bush's appeals for Hispanic support have proved so effective. Bush is sincere, but he's also operating in a vacuum with no competition from Democrats on the national level. Maybe that will change, if NDN can get its party's leaders to listen.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Los Angeles Times.

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