What is important, said Rohde, is making the effort. Both Democrats and Republicans recognize that the rapidly shifting dynamics of the Hispanic population mean no one party has a lock on its support in 2004.
"Among both parties, the perception is that the past is only partially prologue," Rohde said. "Just because the Democrats have established a relatively strong hold on the Hispanic vote, that does not mean it is guaranteed for the future."
Most important, said one expert, is the GOP must only improve upon its 2000 performance — not necessarily win over a majority of Hispanics.
"We have to remember that Bush does not have to win the Hispanic vote outright, but only win part of the Hispanic vote or at least split it," said Maurilio Vigil, a political science professor at New Mexico Highlands University whose expertise is Hispanic voting patterns. "If he can do even 5 to 10 points better in 2004, it will be a significant swing."
In 1990, Hispanics made up 9 percent of the U.S. population. By the 2000 census, the figure was 12 percent. Census Bureau demographers expect the Hispanic population to continue to grow at similar rates in coming years.
In two of the nation's largest states — California and Texas — Hispanics could approach majority status in coming decades.
In other states, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the Northeast's Rust Belt, the Hispanic population has increased while overall state numbers have fallen. For example, in Pennsylvania alone the Hispanic population swelled nearly 70 percent from 1990 to 2000's total of nearly 394,000.
The presidential election of 2000 followed a trend of more than half a century in national elections, with the Democrat tromping the Republican candidate among Latinos. Only 35 percent of Hispanic voters chose Bush, while 62 percent voted for Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, according to Vigil.
Bush and his advisers recognize changing some of those minds will be crucial in 2004. As a result, they have made serious efforts to woo Latinos, including
- Making Mexico the destination of Bush's first foreign trip as president. Bush used the trip to tout his strong working relationship with Mexican President Vicente Fox, who will be the guest of honor at Bush's first state dinner.
- Considering a plan to give legal status to the more than 3 million undocumented Mexicans living and working in the United States.
- Supporting a provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement that would permit Mexican trucks to drive on U.S. roads with few restrictions. He has accused Democrats opposed to the plan of being "isolationist."
- Appointing Alberto Gonzalez as White House counsel. Gonzalez, a second-generation Mexican-American and former Texas Supreme Court justice, has been mentioned as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee if a vacancy occurs.
- Agreeing in June on a long-term plan to stop military bombing at a test range on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.
The importance of the Latino vote has not been lost on Democrats, either. The party chairman, Terry McAuliffe, recently participated in a Los Angeles-area voter registration drive in heavily Hispanic areas. The party has been actively raising money for Latino candidates, including a $500,000 fund-raiser in California.
Changing the impression of Hispanic voters about his character and policies will be a challenge for Bush. Vigil, a Mexican immigrant, said a crucial consideration for any politician must be the high value Hispanics place on a candidate's personality and character above his stance on any particular ideological issue.
"Hispanic voters are more candidate-than-issue centered," he said.
Vigil sees pitfalls for Bush in his "waffling" on issues such as the Vieques bombing range, the worker amnesty and the Mexican trucks driving on U.S roads. "It seems … he has been ambivalent and that could be disastrous for him," said Vigil. "If they view Bush as weak or subservient to the Republican right wing, Hispanics will see him as a wimp."
A surprising move by Bush on an issue like worker amnesty could inspire some Hispanics to support him, said Rudy Delagraza, a professor at the Tomas Rivera Center at the University of Texas.
"If he takes a bold step like advocating amnesty for the workers, for example, the Hispanic community will look at him and say ‘That is a courageous action on his part,' " said Delagraza.