The Miami Herald
Feb. 03, 2004

Hispanic voters look for diverse message

Democratic candidates are discovering that Hispanic voters are highly diverse and not part of any easily identified voting bloc.


  PHOENIX - For the first time this political season, the Democratic presidential contenders must court large portions of Hispanic voters in Arizona and New Mexico, two of the seven states that hold primary elections today.

  But the candidates are quickly discovering that the diverse community of Hispanics -- the largest minority group in the nation -- does not form a single, easily identified
  voting bloc.

  The candidates are focusing on poverty, immigration, education and other issues considered important to Hispanics.

  But interviews with Democratic leaders and voters across the Southwest reveal that the same pitch does not hook all Hispanics, and in fact may alienate large segments of an ethnic group that includes people of all races and is working hard to shed stereotypes.


  Hispanics here have made strides at climbing the social and economic ladders. Many are college educated, professionals, homeowners and bilingual. Often the
  socioeconomic lines among Hispanics are drawn between generations, as the younger, American-born generations take advantage of opportunities created by working
  class parents.

  And those who have advanced don't like it when candidates talk down to them.

  ''I feel like they think I'm ignorant,'' said Suzie Moreno, a registered Democrat and sales manager in Phoenix who says she is voting for George W. Bush in November.
  ``They've lumped all Latino Democrats into this needy welfare group. The Latino has evolved. We're different now. I'm an educated woman.''

  Added New Mexico Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson, who is Hispanic, in a recent interview: ``It's not just speaking a bit of Spanish to voters. You have to do more than that. They [candidates] need to address not just mainstream issues like jobs, Iraq, the economy and healthcare, but also have sensitivity to issues like affirmative action, immigration and civil rights.''


  Hispanics comprise 25 percent of the population in Arizona and 42 percent in New Mexico. Yet despite the high numbers, Hispanics haven't gained political power,
  particularly in Arizona. Of the state's 1.5 million Hispanics, only 300,000 are registered to vote. That's only half of the estimated number eligible to register. The city of
  Phoenix doesn't have a single Hispanic city council member despite being almost half Hispanic.

  Hispanics are also less likely to be Democrats in the state today than they were 20 years ago. In 1980, 82 percent of Hispanic voters in Arizona were Democrats; today it's 66 percent.

  ''As they move up in education and become more white collar and higher income, there is some flow to the GOP,'' said Earl De Berge, research director for the Behavior Research Center, which tracks Hispanic trends and issues in Arizona.

  But the Democratic Party is still the most visible among Hispanics in Arizona.

  Democratic Activist Debbie Lopez launched the Latino Vote Project last year, sending about 1,000 volunteers door to door every week to try to register 100,000 more
  Hispanics before the general election in November. And from 2000 to 2002, the budget of the state's Democratic Party grew tenfold, from $900,000 to $9 million, Lopez said.


  The potential power among Hispanic voters is vast and it needs only to be awakened, she said.

  ''There is a whole huge population that doesn't know about the political process,'' Lopez said. ``If we succeed in reaching them, we can change this state and this country.''

  To wade through this political minefield, where simple messages can be misunderstood and ill perceived, the Democratic candidates have launched a public relations and advertising blitz in New Mexico and Arizona.

  Most of them have beefed up their staffs with Hispanics familiar with the area's political landscape. They have aired ads targeting Hispanics both in Spanish and English. They have ventured into fringe communities and border towns to listen to the people.

  ''Here in New Mexico, Latinos are such a major part of the vote that pretty much everything we do is tailored to Latinos,'' said Andres Gonzalez, Dean's campaign
  spokesman in New Mexico. ``We canvass neighborhoods, have bilingual phone banking, house parties.''

  In television advertisements, the presidential contenders have targeted Hispanics from different angles, with some such as John Kerry's appealing to what he perceives as
  Hispanic needs, and others, such as Wesley Clark's, appealing to machismo and paternalistic tendencies.

  Kerry's ad also mentions that he is a veteran, but quickly switches to what he feels Hispanics need.

  ''He knows what our community needs,'' the ad says, ``health insurance for every family, better education and more opportunities.''

  Then in heavily accented Spanish, Kerry ads: ''Quiero volver la esperanza a este pais.'' (``I want to bring hope back to this country.'')

  Clark's advertisement begins by talking about the parts of his body where he was struck by bullets in combat and his bravery in battle, then goes on to say that he speaks four languages.

  ''He possesses American values,'' the ad says of Clark, ``the valor of a man who worries about his people.''

  Sen. Joseph Lieberman's Spanish ads appeal to Hispanic immigrant roots, explaining that his grandparents were immigrants, he was the first in his family to attend college and that he has lived the American dream.

  The ad says Lieberman's family gave him ''los valores de fe, familia, y amor para este pais'' -- a sense of faith, family and love of his country.

  However, none of the ads offers much insight from the candidates into what makes the Hispanic community different.