Kerry's Low Profile May Cost Crucial Latino Votes
By Michael Finnegan
Times Staff Writer
ALBUQUERQUE — At the New Mexico headquarters of President Bush's reelection campaign, maps cover the walls. One is a dense maze of color-coded pins tracking block-by-block recruitment of Bush precinct captains. For the six paid operatives who have worked here for weeks, the maps chart the battle to avert what happened to Bush in 2000: He lost New Mexico by 366 votes.
So far, it's an uneven fight. Two months after John F. Kerry in effect captured the Democratic presidential nomination, the Massachusetts senator has no staff or headquarters in New Mexico, the nation's most heavily Latino state.
In each of the three other battleground states where the Latino vote is pivotal — Arizona, Nevada and Florida — the same is true: Bush has staff and headquarters; Kerry does not. Bush also has run television ads in Spanish in each of those states; Kerry has not.
Kerry's slow start in appealing to Latinos has complicated his quest to keep Bush from making inroads with a voting bloc that's expected to play a key role this year in determining who wins the White House, according to Democratic strategists and Latino backers of Kerry.
"It's like being in a foot race, and the other guy gets a 20-yard head start," said Armando Gutierrez, an Albuquerque consultant who produced ads in Spanish for the Al Gore and Bill Clinton presidential campaigns.
In the end, the Bush advantage might have "a marginal impact" on the election, he said, but in an extremely close race that could matter a great deal.
Kerry advisors attributed the candidate's delayed start of operations to Bush's wide lead in raising money. Kerry, who plans to campaign this week in Albuquerque and Phoenix, will open offices this month in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and Florida. Ultimately, he will launch a major ad campaign in Spanish, his advisors said.
"If we had unlimited money, we would have matched them dollar for dollar, but we just don't have the resources," said Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, a national co-chairman of Kerry's campaign.
Other Kerry supporters said New Mexico's popular governor, Bill Richardson, could compensate for the campaign's initial absence from the state. Richardson, who is Latino, will chair the Democratic National Convention this summer. He holds a prime spot on lists of potential Kerry running mates, with the assumption he would galvanize Latinos nationwide. The Democratic Party and independent groups could also help Kerry match the Bush forces in states where Latinos are crucial.
The New Democrat Network has been running television ads in Spanish, denouncing Bush and promoting the party's agenda without mentioning Kerry. Its spots have run in Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Miami, Tampa, Fla., and Orlando, Fla., as well as Yuma, Ariz. But like other independent groups, it is barred by law from explicitly promoting Kerry.
Sergio Bendixen, a Florida pollster and senior advisor to the New Democrat Network, said the ads "would be a lot more effective" if the Kerry campaign had its own spots on the air.
"It would be extremely helpful to have a much more active Kerry campaign in the four states," he said.
Kerry ran television advertising in Spanish during the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Richardson said Kerry should resume it to counter Bush's "huge advertising campaign."
"My worry is that unless we respond effectively and actively, we will not be able to blunt that outreach effort," Richardson said in an interview at his office in Santa Fe, N.M.
Richardson said the Kerry campaign was "doing fine now" on appeals to Latinos and that they view Republicans as "anti-immigrant, anti-education, anti-civil rights." But he warned: "The danger is President Bush does have personal popularity with Latino voters."
Gutierrez, a former Democratic National Committee ad maker, said that with Bush ads tarnishing Kerry's image in Spanish, the senator would be "starting from a negative point" once he was ready to introduce himself in his own Spanish ads, which reach just a portion of Latino voters.
"He is still going to have to be sold to the Hispanic community as John Kerry," Gutierrez said. "In the absence of having a clear and compelling reason to vote for John Kerry, they're just going to stay home."
The biggest- and fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., Latinos lean heavily toward Democrats, but are less firmly anchored to the party than African Americans. In 2000, Latinos comprised 7% of the national vote, favoring Gore over Bush, 61% to 38%, a Los Angeles Times exit poll found.
Still, Bush's performance among Latinos in 2000 was the strongest of any Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan won 46% in 1984. As governor of Texas in the 1990s, Bush courted Latinos aggressively, and he has continued to do so as president.
In January, he proposed a guest-worker program for illegal immigrants, a move widely seen as a bid to draw Latino support.
This year, Lionel Sosa, the producer of Bush's Spanish-language television ads, said the president's team was aiming for 40% of the Latino vote — a mark that strategists of both parties said probably would ensure Bush's reelection.
"Latinos are no longer the Democrats' hip-pocket vote," Sosa said, citing the relative popularity among Latinos of Republican Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and George E. Pataki of New York.
In Albuquerque today, the Bush campaign will hold the first of several "Viva Bush" events to showcase the president's Latino supporters. More events will follow later this week in New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California and Minnesota.
For Kerry, a key to building Latino support is the patchwork of independent groups set up to comply with the new federal campaign finance law.
Moving America Forward, a group led by Richardson, has dispatched teams to register Latinos in Florida and New Mexico, where 43% of the population is Latino.
Next, it will train canvassers in Arizona and Nevada. Their work supplements the registration efforts of more established groups, such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
The potential boost to Kerry was clear Thursday in Albuquerque, where Moving America Forward canvassers Manuel Silva, 22, and Alma Villarreal-Daniels, 40, set out with clipboards to sign up voters in Old Town Albuquerque.
Knocking on the doors of adobe-color houses with rusty corrugated metal roofs, they met retired construction worker Frank Moya, 75. He invited them into his living room, where a large crucifix hangs behind his armchair, and told them to mark him down as a Democrat and get him an absentee ballot too.
"We ought to impeach that president we have," Moya told them. "All those people are dying" in Iraq.
On the other side of Albuquerque, America Coming Together, a major national initiative to mobilize Democrats in 17 states, was setting up shop in a strip mall. Leading that group's effort was Geri Prado, Kerry's state director for the February caucuses in New Mexico.
Financed by organized labor, the Sierra Club and other Democratic Party mainstays, the group says it will publicize its criticism of the Bush administration — in education, healthcare and other areas — through mail, phone calls and home visits to New Mexicans.
For all the activities of the outside groups, Latino leaders warned that Kerry should not depend on those groups to shore up his campaign.
Raul Yzaguirre, president of National Council of La Raza, one of the country's biggest Latino groups, also expressed concern that there were no Latinos in Kerry's inner circle of advisors.
"It not only bothers me, I think it's not smart," Yzaguirre said. "It's not intelligent politics."
He said Kerry had done "little to nothing" to court Latinos since defeating his Democratic primary rivals. Clinton and Gore, he said, "showed more sensitivity at this stage than Sen. Kerry has so far."
Others argue that the campaign needs high-ranking Latinos for guidance on the cultural nuances of appealing to diverse Latino populations around the country.
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter denied that Kerry lacked close Latino advisors. Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros, a national co-chairman of the campaign, is "on the phone with John Kerry all the time," she said.
Cutter said Kerry's campaign team was still growing, but listed senior political advisor Paul Rivera and several Latinos already on staff and called the criticism "premature."
Citing Kerry's plans on jobs, education and healthcare, Cutter said, "He's absolutely clear about making the issues that Hispanic Americans care about a priority."
For his part, Richardson said it was important for Kerry to have "highly visible" Latinos in the top ranks of his campaign.
"It seems that with Villaraigosa and Cisneros, they're doing that," he said. "I think that's good.
"I assume they're high up," he continued. "Are they?"