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 entrée 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.
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