Kerry leads in poll of Latin voters
By LESLEY CLARK
John Kerry, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, holds a wide but not necessarily comfortable lead over President Bush among Hispanic voters nationwide, giving both sides room to maneuver within that critical constituency, according to a new poll.
Results of The Herald/Zogby International Hispanic Poll foreshadow an aggressive outreach effort by both campaigns as they seek to woo a coveted voting bloc that has the potential to tip key battleground states such as Florida, New Mexico and Arizona.
The results also reflect national surveys that have found that, with eight months to go before the election, voters of all backgrounds remain polarized.
"The Hispanic vote is borderline for Kerry and it's borderline for the president," said pollster John Zogby, who conducted the survey of 1,000 likely voters. "Nothing is going to make this one easy to predict."
Kerry, who secured the nomination just last month, holds an apparently cushy 58 percent to 33 percent lead over Bush among voters who identify themselves as Hispanic. But the survey reveals potential hurdles for the senator from Massachusetts. Strategists say he must keep Bush's support among Hispanic Americans to less than 35 percent if he is to have a shot at defeating the president.
Bush narrowly secured the White House in 2000 in part by chewing into the traditionally Democratic Hispanic base and drawing 35 percent of its vote. Although Cuban Americans in South Florida are overwhelmingly Republican, Hispanics with roots in other Latin American countries tend to vote Democratic.
Encouraged by the 2000 numbers - and the presence in Florida of Bush's popular younger brother in the governor's mansion - Republicans are seeking to boost Bush's standing among Hispanic Americans to 40 percent this year, with Bush hitting hard on conservative issues that play well with Hispanics, such as family values and religion.
A MAJOR PUSH
The president's reelection campaign will launch what it says is an unprecedented nationwide Hispanic grass-roots mobilization effort with a rally April 12 in Orlando - signaling that Florida, particularly independent-leaning voters from Orlando to Tampa, will be at the center of the fight for the Hispanic vote.
Kerry's campaign, too, has pledged to make Florida a key battleground, hoping to energize the growing Puerto Rican Democratic base in Central Florida, which Bush lost to Al Gore in 2000.
Kerry's campaign sees opportunity, too, among Cuban-American voters in South Florida, who some polls suggest are disenchanted with Bush's lack of progress on helping to democratize Cuba.
The Herald poll, though, suggests that without yet mounting a concentrated effort, Bush may be holding his own, polling strongly among voters who like him personally.
"If he's targeting 40 percent, never say never," Zogby said. "These are indicators that show some potential. John Kerry is not yet there."
The survey was conducted Monday through Wednesday last week and carries a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.
Mirroring polls of all voters, the survey shows that Bush's strongest support among Hispanic Americans is in the South, with almost 40 percent backing his reelection - a reflection of his mostly staunch Cuban-American support and the region's conservatism.
A WORRYING AREA
More worrisome for Kerry, Bush's support is at 36 percent in the Central/Great Lakes region, including the battleground industrial states of Michigan and Ohio, where Kerry has lambasted the president for the loss of jobs.
But the poll shows plenty of room for Kerry to make inroads. Less than half of Hispanic voters, for example, give Bush a solid job-performance rating.
Less than half of Hispanic voters have a favorable opinion of Bush, and, more ominously, 62 percent said it's "time for someone new."
In contrast, Kerry's popularity among Hispanic voters is a strong 66 percent, and a surprising number of Hispanics say they are pro-choice on the abortion issue, as is Kerry.
The poll shows troubling numbers for Bush, too, on one of the central issues of his campaign - his leadership. More than half of Hispanic voters believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, and just as many oppose the war in Iraq.
HIS FATHER'S WAR
"I hate to say it, but I think he was doing it all for his dad," said poll respondent Antonio Ramos, 60, who lives outside Toledo, Ohio. "I really think Bush was fighting his father's thing."
In recent weeks, Kerry has opened a new front, accusing the White House of failing to promote democratic reforms in Venezuela, and there are some signs that it's working. With nine of every 10 Hispanic voters rating current U.S. policy toward Latin America as either "very important or somewhat important," the president was given a decidedly unexceptional grade on Latin America policy, with only 35 percent saying he's doing a "good" or "excellent" job.
Still, Bush has been able to push back at Kerry's changing stands on Cuba issues, and that has resonated with his Hispanic base in South Florida.
BUSH IN S. FLORIDA
"Toward Latin America, I think Bush has had a pretty moderate attitude and has been very discreet," said Little Havana resident Enrique Soto, a Cuban American who plans to vote for Bush in November and who responded to the survey. "He has tried to support democratic governments and condemn others. And he is trying to combat corruption there and foment free trade."
Bush's ratings among elderly Hispanics, though, may be particularly worrisome to the White House. Among those 65 and older, more than seven in 10 said they would back Kerry, despite Republican efforts to court seniors with a high-profile prescription drug bill.
But in a worrisome sign for Democrats, the poll shows that consumer advocate Ralph Nader would siphon votes from Kerry but not from Bush - reducing Kerry's support among Hispanic Americans by two percentage points, potentially swinging a squeaky-tight election.
Miami Herald staff writer Oscar Corral contributed to this report.