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The Wall Street Journal

U.S. Presidential Contenders Realize Importance of Winning Over Hispanics

By Jackie Calmes and Carmen Alicia Fernandez

March 18, 1999
Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

"Llama me Alberto," the U.S. vice president tells his Hispanic audience at a Kennedy Center gala -- Call me Alberto. Then Al Gore shows he has graduated from the Macarena to dancing salsa with Caribbean legend Celia Cruz.

Across the country in Austin, Texas, Gov. George W. Bush just this week told a Mexico City newspaper to call him "Mexico's best friend across the border." The governor, who likes to say, "My heart is Hispanic " -- in Spanish -- also broke with the language of his Republican Party in that interview to sympathize with Mexican immigrants here.

Such pitches to U.S. Spanish-speakers, from the two front-runners for their parties' presidential nominations, speak to what's shaping up as one of the biggest fights within the fight for political control in 2000: the battle for the growing Hispanic vote. That vote is concentrated in the U.S.'s four largest states: California, the big enchilada, with 54 electoral votes, along with Texas, Florida and New York. With the U.S.'s already-large Hispanic population growing at a steady clip, "it's reached critical mass," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William Velasquez Institute in Los Angeles and San Antonio.

A new poll conducted for the Wall Street Journal Americas this month confirms that Democrats have a solid edge over Republicans among U.S. Hispanics. At the same time, though, Republican Bush has a 10-point lead over Democrat Gore in an early presidential matchup.

While Americans generally are closely split on their party identification, the Hispanics in the Journal poll, by nearly a two-to-one margin, identified themselves as Democrats. They picked Mr. Bush over Mr. Gore, however, by 45% to 35%, according to the poll, conducted by MORI-USA in Princeton, New Jersey. The polling firm's president, Miguel Basanez, says Mr. Bush 's lead probably stems from both recognition of his father's name among Hispanics, and the large number of Hispanics in his state.

For Hispanics, such results hint at a more competitive presidential contest than was suggested by last fall's midterm election, which saw a Hispanic backlash, especially in California, against Republican initiatives against immigration, affirmative action and bilingual education. But the Hispanic vote will come into play in a variety of congressional and state races, and Democrats may have a clearer advantage in those.

While it's often assumed that the Republican's antiabortion stand might be an asset among the heavily Catholic Hispanic population, the poll suggests that might not be the case. A striking 70% of the respondents supported abortion rights, a share similar to the proportion for non-Hispanics.

Overall, the U.S.'s 31 million Hispanics make up nearly 11% of Americans, according to the Census Bureau, and by 2005 they will pass African-Americans as the biggest minority group. To date, however, Hispanics' clout has been diminished by low turnout, related to the their young average age, lower citizenship rates and high poverty.

Gov. Bush 's own proven vote-getting appeal among Texas Hispanics is among the reasons that establishment Republicans, fretting over their party's damaged image among Hispanics and other ethnic groups, have flocked to his still-unannounced candidacy. Last fall, he claimed 49% of the Hispanic vote, based on exit polls, in becoming the first Republican ever re-elected Texas governor. Though subsequent studies put the figure closer to 40%, the percentage still is impressive for a Republican.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush 's brother, Jeb, was elected governor in Florida, the one state where Republicans already have an edge with Hispanics because of Cuban-Americans who associate the Republicans with ardent anti-Castroism. Jeb Bush 's Mexican-American wife, Columba, cuts radio and TV ads for both Bush brothers for Hispanic stations.

The potential threat leaves Mr. Gore, who still faces Bill Bradley's opposing bid for the Democratic nomination, scrambling Hispanic advantage. Even if Mr. Bush isn't the Republican nominee, Texas is all but out of reach to the Democrat given Republicans' edge there. That explains why the Gore Hispanic strategy, like his game-plan generally, banks on vote-rich California.

The Gore camp also emphasizes New Mexico and Colorado, where Hispanics are a big share of the vote. It was in Denver last month that Mr. Gore met privately with more than a dozen Hispanic supporters, and his inner circle since has developed what an aide called "a very aggressive program" for Hispanic votes. Those present included former Denver mayor and Clinton Cabinet Secretary Federico Pena, California Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, and Martin Chavez, a former New Mexico governor candidate.

Mr. Gore's network of Hispanic officeholders also includes Alex Penelas, the Cuban-American mayor of Miami and Dade County, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California.

Increasingly, he has taken the White House lead on issues of concern to Hispanics, such as education and immigrant benefits. Last week, Mr. Gore was at a Hispanic -owned lumber yard in Miami to celebrate the county's designation as an "empowerment zone," entitling it to U.S. federal assistance. And the talk of a Bush candidacy rustles talk that Mr. Gore might choose a Hispanic vice presidential nominee -- say, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson, a Mexican-American.

Meanwhile, Gore backers note that Mr. Bush hasn't had to answer yet for his party's stance on a range of issues, or spell out his own view on the controversial question of whether statistical sampling should be used in the 2000 census to boost minority counts.

And Democrats aren't the only ones challenging Mr. Bush 's claim on Hispanics. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, also seeking the Republican nomination, points to a Senate record that brought him awards last month from two national Hispanic organizations, and to two elections in which he won a majority of Arizona Hispanics' votes. Says spokesman Howard Opinsky, "He is not going to cede the Hispanic vote to anyone, be it Al Gore or anyone on the Republican side."

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