Candidates Face First Test Among Latinos
Democrats reach out to a key voting bloc for contests in Arizona and New Mexico on Tuesday.
By John M. Glionna
Times Staff Writer
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — For Chris Hernandez Jr., Wesley K. Clark is known
simply as "the Boss." For three perilous years in the late 1990s, Hernandez
Clark's bodyguard when the now-retired Army general served as NATO commander during the war in the Balkans.
Hernandez's job was to watch the back of the four-star general he considers
a personal hero. At home in Arizona, little has changed in the arrangement.
As Clark —
now a Democratic presidential candidate — campaigns for votes in Tuesday's Arizona primary and the New Mexico caucus, Hernandez is a critical player in efforts to
win the backing of fellow Latino war veterans.
In nearby Mesa, Vietnam veteran Oscar Urrea fights for a different field
leader: Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts. Urrea considers Kerry, who
served as a Navy
lieutenant in Vietnam, a comrade in arms who's been tested under fire.
"We never met in Vietnam, but I'm proud to serve for John Kerry," said the 56-year-old Urrea. "He's one of us."
The Arizona and New Mexico contests — two of seven in the Democratic
race on Tuesday — represent the first tests among the candidates for the
crucial Latino vote. All of those who have campaigned here — including Clark, Kerry, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean —
have run Spanish-language ads and have made their campaign websites available in Spanish.
They have sought the endorsements of popular Latino politicians and
community leaders and conducted tours of the border. Several of the contenders
are to appear
tonight at a forum in Phoenix sponsored in part by Latino groups. And Dean and Kerry have briefly dusted off their schoolboy Spanish while addressing audiences on
immigration reform and improving healthcare for the poor.
The reason: The Latino voting bloc has grown in both scope and significance
across the Southwest. With extensive coverage of the campaign by Spanish-language
media, a good showing in Arizona and New Mexico could help candidates attract Latino votes in California, one of a bloc of states with primaries on March 2.
And for the eventual Democratic nominee, the party's contests in Arizona
and New Mexico will provide valuable name identification among Latinos
in the general
"Latinos across the Southwest will watch what happens Tuesday," said
F. Chris Garcia, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico.
"And these candidates
know the importance of coming out of the gate with a positive image among Latinos."
He added: "These are uncharted waters. None of them has any experience with Hispanic voters."
Latinos now make up 25% of Arizona's 5 million residents, and their
growing numbers have helped make the state — once a Republican bastion
— more competitive in
recent presidential elections. In a reflection of the of the group's increasing political clout, the number of Latinos elected to office in Arizona has risen 20% in the last
In New Mexico, nearly one of every two of the state's 1.8 million residents is Latino, including Gov. Bill Richardson.
A Los Angeles Times/CNN poll conducted late last week showed Kerry leading
among likely voters in the Arizona primary, with 29%. Clark ranked second,
followed by Dean (13%), Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina (8%) and Lieberman (3%).
The poll, which had an error margin of plus or minus 5 percentage points,
also found that the race remains fluid. One in five of Arizonans was undecided
two-fifths who had a favorite candidate said they might change their minds.
To get their message out in Arizona and New Mexico, many candidates
have spent heavily on TV and radio ads. From June through late January,
Dean spent nearly
$1.7 million in the two states, followed by Clark ($1.5 million) and Lieberman ($700,000), according to an analysis provided to The Times by TNSMI/Campaign Media
Analysis Group. Kerry began running TV ads in the region late last week, following his victories in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.
Many of the ads have been in Spanish. But Garcia cautioned that such
targeting of Latino voters could backfire if the message lacks real solutions
to problems faced by
"If the efforts are perceived as … merely pandering to Hispanic voters
by throwing out a few Spanish phrases, people could become insulted," he
said. "But if the
message is sincere, the use of a little Spanish comes off as a respect for the culture. It's a bridge."
At age 41, Hernandez knows about building cultural bridges. For months,
he has traveled across Arizona, appealing to the patriotic, pro-military
attitudes of many Latino
voters. He wants to make sure they look past retired Gen. Clark's seemingly cool, crisply pressed exterior.
While NATO pilots were on missions, Hernandez tells veterans, Clark
would often get only two hours' sleep. "We'd sit up all night and I'd try
to take his mind off things
by telling him stories about growing up in Arizona," Hernandez said. "But I knew he wasn't listening. He was thinking about the guys in the air."
On forays into the field, Hernandez said, his job was to evacuate Clark
if the general came under fire. But Clark often demanded to travel to hostile
areas. "He'd say
'Let's go down there,' and I'd respond, 'We can't go there, sir. It's not secure,' " Hernandez said. "But he'd tell me to go anyway. And in the back of my mind I'd be
thinking, 'You go, boss!' "
Hernandez assures Latino veterans that Clark is one of them. "He comes
from the same humble background we do," he said. "His dad died when he
was young. He had
to struggle. I've had veterans say to me, 'Clark's story reminds me of myself.' "
While Urrea can't point to any personal battle stories with Kerry, his
own talks with Latino ex-soldiers focus on the senator's fight to ensure
respect and benefits for
Urrea, one of three brothers who served in that war, cites Kerry's sponsorship of a law to offer health benefits to the victims of Agent Orange.
He also argues that as president, Kerry would work to improve Veterans
Affairs hospitals nationwide. "After the bullets stop flying, nobody cares
anymore," Urrea says. "Our hospitals are the first place the government goes when it needs to make budget cuts.
"But not John Kerry. He's going to be the veterans' president. He's going to fight for us just like we're fighting for him."
At a recent Latino veterans event, Urrea met Hernandez. The two shook hands and wished each other's leader well on Tuesday.
"We're on the same ticket; we've just got different choices," Urrea said. "That's why we went to war in the first place: to protect those political choices."