California native Susan Gonzalez worked for the first President Bush in the early 1990s, but on a Sunday evening this September, she sat with a houseful of Washington, D.C.-area Sen. Hillary Clinton supporters watching the Univision Democratic Forum.
Like several Hispanic voters who once found a home in George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism, Ms. Gonzalez and the GOP parted company this year.
"I was watching the immigration debate," she said at the Clinton debate-watch-party in Falls Church, Virginia. "I was appalled at how the Republican leadership referred to immigrants."
So that was that. She became an Independent, and now she plans to vote for Senator Clinton (D-NY) for president.
"I have a number of friends who were Republicans, are now Independent, and now are open to all discussions," Ms. Gonzalez said of a political transformation now befuddling Republican politicians who had made strong in-roads in the Hispanic community under George W. Bush.
"I think it would be a mistake to view Hispanic voters as single-issue voters," says Alex Burgos, director of specialty media for Mitt Romney's Republican presidential campaign. Mr. Romney was the first to go bilingual online, cut a Spanish-language radio ad in March, and created a Latin American policy advisory committee composed largely of Hispanic Americans.
"One of the main critiques of Democrats last time was they fell asleep at the wheel as the Bush campaign got ahead of them," Mr. Burgos says. "This time around, the next Republican nominee will have to work even harder, because Democrats have woken up."
In fact, a glance at the online campaign shows most Democratic contenders are showcasing Spanish-language Web sites where many of their Republican counterparts are not. Democrats have hired Hispanic outreach coordinators where most Republicans have not. And looking at major Hispanic events, Democrats have showed up where Republicans simply have not.
The GOP largely dodged the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) convention this year, with only Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) showing up. Others sent letters about their scheduling conflicts. The leading candidates in both parties have been scrambling for Hispanic endorsements to have somebody, anybody, represent them in important Hispanic-dominant regions.
"Partisanship runs shallow. This is a community that if you work it, if you speak to the community, if you have a plan, we will listen," says Marcelo Gaete, NALEO's senior director of programs.
Despite roughly 60 percent of Hispanic voters tipping toward Democrats in 2004, statistics show Gaete is right Hispanics are still very much up for grabs. Sixty-eight percent of Hispanics identify themselves as Catholic, and another 15 percent consider themselves evangelicals, giving conservative Republican candidates an easy entrιe to the country's fastest-growing voting bloc.
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) has predicated his entire candidacy on the theme of "Life."
"I want to broaden 'pro-life' to 'whole life,'" he said recently in New Hampshire, but when asked about taking his views into the Hispanic community, he said, "I know we will have support there, we just have not gone there yet."
The Republicans are the first national party to be led by a Hispanic Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) and their Spanish communications are constantly growing. But Senator Martinez has announced he'll vacate his Republican National Committee chairman post in 2008, and the party seems to be making a U-turn on the road President Bush paved for them when he went from border-state governor to U.S. president thanks to the votes of Hispanic-rich Florida.
Checking the Calendars
While the Democratic party gave a nod to Hispanics in moving Nevada [24 percent Hispanic population] to the second slot on its primary election and caucus calendar right after first-in-the-nation Iowa Republicans kept Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina [collectively 3 percent Hispanic] their first three states, which all but shuts out Hispanics from the presidential nominating process.
Despite grumbling from Republicans about the GOP's neglect of minority-centered events, a spokesman says there are no plans to help any of their candidates organize Hispanic support this early in the campaign.
"We are staying completely neutral until we have a nominee," says party spokeswoman Hessy Fernandez.
Several major campaigns have organized Hispanic steering committees, but the Republican field still includes some ardent anti-immigrant voices, most notably that of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), who is running a single-issue border-security campaign for the presidency. Democrats say that will only serve to cement a xenophobic stereotype on Republicans more generally.
"In the end, Tancredo forces everyone on the stage to the right," says Joe Garcia, director of the New Democratic Network's Hispanic Strategy Center, which aims to help Democrats communicate more effectively with Hispanics across the nation. Mr. Garcia equates the Senate Republicans killing of immigration legislation this year to California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's campaign in 1994 for passage of the Proposition 187, which aimed to deny illegal immigrants social services.
"It's one of those generational errors," he said. "There are a lot of things you don't fight in this world demographics is one of them. You don't fight the sunrise in the morning, and you don't fight demographics."
Since Prop. 187, 36-percent Hispanic California has been an electoral lock for national Democrats. Garcia predicts a similar backlash against Republicans after this year's divisive and oft racist immigration debate.
It's the story of the former Republican Ms. Gonzalez's life. "That debate has pulled me all the way over," she said.
Tapping into the Community
Among the Dos Equis bottles, pico de gallo bowls, and quesadilla trays at the Falls Church, Virginia, Clinton gathering, there is laughter as 20 Hispanic females from all over Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia watch a flat-screen TV broadcasting the Univision debate.
"He just violated the rules," one yells as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson slips into his fluent Spanish only to be shut down by the moderators.
"I'm disappointed today that 43 million Latinos in this country for them not to hear one of their own speak Spanish, is unfortunate," said Governor Richardson, the only Hispanic in the race for president. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) is also fluent in Spanish from his days spent in the Peace Corps in the Dominican Republican.
"I brought a cheque," one woman hollered from the basement in a mixing of tongues emblematic of Hispanics in America.
Senator Clinton used the debate night to tap into the growing community, not necessarily for cash, but more for voter contact. "It's an organizing tool," says campaign spokeswoman Fabiola Rodriguez. "You invite people who may not be involved right now."
The Falls Church crowd is overwhelmingly female, but there's one man present named Jerome Wiley Segovia. He's the national political director for the Casa Blanca [White House] Project, and he is the difference between the Democrats and Republicans at this stage in the campaign.
His organization aims to register 1,000 Hispanic volunteers and select Hispanic state volunteer coordinators for each Democratic presidential candidate.
"As soon as candidates drop out, the state offices are just papers fluttering. This will institutionalize the contacts," Mr. Segovia says. In this house party, he's not the only one thinking long term.
Hispanics may compose 14 percent of the U.S. population, but they represented only 6 percent of voters in 2004. Glenda Rodriguez of Gaithersburg, Maryland, saw what happened and is now getting involved to change Hispanic voting trends in 2008.
"For Bush, there was an organization. That's what failed the Democrats," she says in a room full of Clinton supporters. "We have a lot at stake. We need to start taking part. We need to step up."
Neil H. Simon lives in Washington, D.C. He can be found online at www.neilhsimon.com.
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