In New Mexico much has changed in the four years since the state delivered a razor-thin margin of victory to Mr. Gore. Former Clinton cabinet member Bill Richardson is now governor, and a popular elected official even among some Republicans. The appointed chair of the Democratic National Convention, Mr. Richardson wants to exert a major impact on this race. He engineered the first Hispanic-oriented presidential Democratic debate there, and he has established a $4 million nonprofit fund, Moving America Forward, to mobilize Hispanic voters in New Mexico and three of the other battleground states.
"Bill wants to run for president in 2008," says a top Democratic leader. "And he's made no secret of wanting to be considered as a vice-presidential running mate this year."
But dwarfing Mr. Richardson's effort is the $55-million voter education and mobilization operation put together by New York union leader Dennis Rivera. While normally seen as a labor leader (he sits on the AFL-CIO executive committee) the Puerto Rico-born Mr. Rivera is even more influential among Hispanic politicians than he is in organized labor. For this election, he has developed a novel strategy called "Bush Bucks." As part of the campaign, he has earmarked $35 million from his union's war chest to dispatch 1,000 organizers outside of New York to work full-time in the battleground states to defeat Mr. Bush.
In addition, Mr. Rivera and Democratic National Committee member Bill Lynch have joined Carl Pope of the Sierra Club to create yet another voter registration group. The organization already has raised more than $20 million to target "marginalized" populations. Given that at least 5.5 million Hispanic citizens of voting age remain unregistered, Mr. Rivera believes a massive campaign to reach even a portion of that population in states such as New Mexico and Arizona could produce unexpected results.
Arizona is a state that Bill Clinton won in 1996, but Mr. Gore lost in 2000 by less than 100,000 votes. The state is 25 percent Hispanic and in the last four years has elected a Democratic woman governor and added another Hispanic congressman, Raul Grijalva. More than half of its population growth since 2000 has been Hispanic.
"It's nasty there because of the border and immigration question," says Mr. Oaxaca. "You may have some anti-Republican backlash among Hispanics because of those attacks on immigrants at the border."
In Nevada, Mr. Bush won by less than 22,000 votes in 2000. But the state's Hispanic segment nearly doubled between 1990 and 2000, to almost 20 percent of the population, and many of those Hispanics are highly organized through unions in the hotel and gaming industries.
As for Colorado, Mr. Bush won the state's vote with 51 percent in 2000, but his environmental policies have hurt him there. That development, coupled with the growth of Colorado's Hispanic population, points to a much closer presidential vote this year.
With Republicans expected to raise record amounts of money for this year's campaign, they should flood Spanish-language media with advertising, as they did in 2000 in Florida and other states in an effort to get out their message. Meanwhile, Democrats will spend the first few months of the year battling over their nomination.
So far none of the Democratic candidates has attracted much support in the Hispanic community, although Howard Dean has the largest list of Hispanic supporters including Arizona's Mr. Grijalva, union leader Mr. Rivera, and members of Congress Robert Menendez (New Jersey), Nydia Velazquez (New York), and Loretta Sanchez and Lucille Roybal Allard (California).
Dick Gephardt carries the backing of Arizona Congressman Ed Pastor. John Kerry has support from former Clinton appointees Henry Cisneros and Aida Alvarez. And Al Sharpton of New York has support from Congressman Jose Serrano and former Bronx Democratic Party Chief Roberto Ramirez.
Whatever the outcome in November, the Hispanic vote will play a larger role than ever, and it will be complex and unpredictable.
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