Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2004

Latinos Vote for Patriotism, Not One-Upmanship

Military records could have effect on the campaign.

By Frank del Olmo

So who is more likely to get Latino voter support in November: a former National Guard flyboy from Texas or a former Navy officer from Massachusetts?

Far more important questions about the Latino vote will be asked before election 2004 is over. And they will focus on far more complex issues, like President
Bush's recent guest-worker proposal or his administration's effort to reform American schools so there is "no child left behind."

But for now, with the presidential primaries well underway, an interesting trend may have emerged in two states with large Latino populations: Arizona and New
Mexico. Last Tuesday, the acknowledged front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, won easily in both states with solid
Latino support 41% in Arizona, according to one exit poll. But what I find intriguing is who came in second in those two states, both in overall voting and among
Latinos. It was neither of the two men most pundits see as jockeying for the No. 2 spot, Howard Dean and John Edwards. It was retired Army Gen. Wesley K.
Clark.

In Arizona, Clark got 26.8% of the primary ballots. Among Latino voters, he got 29% of the vote, according to an exit poll by Edison Research. In the presidential
caucuses in New Mexico, where 30% of voters are Latino, Kerry won with 37.7% support and Clark got 19%.

Obviously, one should not make too much of voting trends so early in an election year. But the Arizona and New Mexico voting results do offer one useful reminder
to the Democrats. They provide more evidence that Latinos do not easily fit into the liberal mold, where too many Democrats try to lump them with African
Americans.

Though Latinos tend to favor more spending on schools and many of the government programs backed by liberals, they also tend to be conservative on social issues
like abortion and support for the military. At least that is one credible explanation why Clark, who was in uniform until recently, got voter support second only to
Kerry, a Vietnam War hero.Of course, the fact that Latinos are pro-military comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the pride that Latino families take in
relatives who have served in the armed forces. Walk into almost any Latino home and somewhere on a wall or shelf you'll see prominent photos of fathers, uncles,
cousins or siblings in uniform. They may be grainy old pictures from World War II or fresh new snapshots of young men or women serving in the Persian Gulf, but
they have a place of honor in the family gallery.

And although not as visible an issue as education, or as emotional a topic as immigration, Latino attitudes toward the military could loom in the background as a key
factor that determines whether Latinos vote for Bush's reelection or support his Democratic opponent, who it now appears will be Kerry.

Bush's campaign is aiming to increase his Latino voter support from the respectable 35% he got in 2000 to at least 40% in 2004. They are hoping Latino swing
voters will push New Mexico, which Bush lost by 600 votes in 2000, over to the GOP.

For their part, Democrats point to Arizona and Nevada, which Bush won in 2000, in the hopes of gaining enough new Latino votes to win those states.But in a
Bush-Kerry race, any discussions of military service are muddled by politically inconvenient facts.

Kerry was a wounded war hero, to be sure, but he returned from Vietnam to publicly criticize the war. There are many veterans who consider that a betrayal of his
comrades in arms.

"Throwing those medals away, that could stick in a lot of guys' craw," said Dan Ortiz, a Los Angeles veteran of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Some Latino families
might feel the same way.

On the GOP side, there is the question of whether Bush completely fulfilled his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard or was, as some of his more ardent
critics claim, AWOL part of the time. "A lot of vets, it doesn't matter so much what you did as long as you served," said George Ramos, a Vietnam veteran from
East Los Angeles. "But some may say Kerry was in 'Nam and the president wasn't, and hold that against Bush."

Late in 2002, a few White House operatives briefly tried to bash Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus including some military veterans because
they had voted against the resolution giving Bush the authority to use military force in Iraq. Despite the fact that the caucus is notably more liberal than Latinos on
many issues, the GOP ploy generated a nasty backlash.

So a useful reminder Republicans can draw from the Arizona and New Mexico voting is that, given Latinos' positive attitudes toward the military, it might not be a
good idea to try such a political stunt again. Better to honor all forms of service and patriotism, as Latino families do, than to try to compare old military records in a
tacky version of one-upmanship.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.