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A viewpoint by Thomas D. Elias: Will GOP threaten Demos Hispanic flank?

September 11, 2001

There is no ethnic voting group President Bush has tried harder to woo into the Republican Party than Hispanics. The strategic Bush effort runs through an artful combination of communications strategies, policy initiatives, high-level appointments, foreign visits and specific acts like stopping military bombing runs on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

The result is while Bush lost the national Latino vote by a 2-1 margin last year and did even worse among California Hispanics, his approval rating among voters in that group stood at 59 percent nationally in a Gallup Poll taken at midsummer.

"We get numbers like that (because) we take our policies to the Hispanic community in a way that it hears and retains, and it knows that we're making a special effort to talk to them," says Karl Rove, Bush's campaign manager in 2000 and his chief political adviser today. "Every bit of data shows that Bush and Republicans generally are doing far better among Hispanics than we have done in previous years."


That should be a warning signal for California Democrats, who have made made hay with Latino voters for a generation, especially since ex-Gov. Pete Wilson and the state's Republicans eagerly backed the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994.

No California poll yet shows the kind of movement toward Republicans that's evidenced in the national surveys. One reason is Latinos in states like Texas, Illinois and Florida know little about Proposition 187 and the threat most California Hispanics felt from it. In fact, Bush opposed the measure while governor of Texas at the time it was on the California ballot, and thus avoided getting tarred with the brush that has so damaged California Republicans.

Last year, as Bush won just 21 percent of California Latino votes, he got 31 percent nationally. Take the California Hispanics and their residual anti-GOP feelings resulting from Proposition 187 out of the picture, and he ran almost evenly with Democrat Al Gore among Latinos elsewhere.

Now the national Gallup Poll implies erosion of the Democratic stranglehold on this state's Hispanic voters — even if many Democrats here don't realize it yet.

"My message is that Democrats are in deep trouble with Hispanics," national Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixen told congressional Democrats recently. "Bush has made tremendous inroads with Hispanics and the Democrats have no real plan to take him on. He truly connects with Hispanics and has a chemistry with them. But on the issues, he is not their good friend."

So Bendixen suggests Democrats begin focusing on Bush problems with "Hispanic issues." He cites Bush's desire to use vouchers as a solution to problems with public education rather than fixing what's actually wrong with schools. He says Democrats must stress Bush's steadfast opposition to higher minimum wages and new gun controls.

Democrats also need to find a national spokesman who can actively combat Bush among Latinos, Bendixen says.

In California, there are plenty of such faces, including Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante and former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, who will surely be running for something again soon. Those folks, however, can't draw the media attention afforded Bush any time he meets with Mexican President Vicente Fox or visits a Hispanic area. That means Democrats in Congress and the Legislature can only counter Bush's moves to attract Latino support by visiting Hispanic areas of their districts early and often.

Many are not doing that yet it may be the only way to retain the kind of domination they enjoy in this state's elective offices. Marketing experts report that Hispanics are the most brand-loyal group in America. Once they switch to Budweiser beer or Tide detergent, they stay with it. Since many abandoned Republicans and adopted Democrats as their own, they've been equally loyal.

If Bush can move a significant number into the Republican column, they're likely to stay right there for many years and in the process could change the electoral equation both nationally and in California.

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