The Miami Herald
Wed, Sep. 29, 2004

Campaigns are wooing Florida's Hispanics

Both parties are vigorously pursuing Hispanic voters. A UM forum today will look at what Hispanics want in their candidate.

BY DAVID OVALLE, OSCAR CORRAL AND LESLEY CLARK

Nory Acosta is young, a registered independent and hasn't made up her mind on a candidate for November's presidential election. And she's Hispanic.

That means she belongs to a group that could prove crucial in choosing the next president. Hispanics, and especially Florida Hispanics, are being registered, and wooed, like never before. Consider:

A Democratic group announced Tuesday it's launching a Spanish-language television ad campaign in Florida and four other battleground states, aimed at converting Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans.

A voter registration group will announce today it has exceeded its own expectations by signing up more than 65,000 Hispanic voters in Florida during the past six months. The new voters are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans.

And, at a panel discussion at the University of Miami today, the National Council of La Raza -- the largest Hispanic advocacy group in the nation -- will outline what steps it believes candidates must take to capture the Hispanic vote, which the group says has grown by at least one million nationally since 2000.

The attention showered on Hispanic voters is plenty to digest for voters like Acosta.

''I'm actually trying to decide,'' said the third-year law student at the University of Miami. ``You never know what will be the deciding event.''

PANEL DISCUSSION

Acosta and fellow members of UM's Hispanic Students Law Association helped organize today's panel discussion, moderated by Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.

Speaking on the panel: NCLR President Raul Yzaguirre; Joe Garcia, senior advisor to the New Democratic Network and the former director of the Cuban American National Foundation, and state Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami.

During the discussion, Yzaguirre will analyze how the candidates have done wooing the Hispanic vote.

In a report to be released today, La Raza says President Bush generated enthusiasm among Hispanics early in his tenure. But his policies since then -- the group says he has failed to deliver on health and immigration reforms -- have left his position shaky.

''He could be on the verge of blowing it with this community,'' Muñoz said.

Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry, for his part, is seen as favoring Hispanic-friendly policies but needs more specifics.

La Raza warns that candidates should not ignore the Hispanic vote, especially in swing states like Florida, which has roughly one million Hispanics registered to vote.

In the 2000 election, 80 percent of Florida Cubans went for Bush while roughly 60 percent of non-Cuban Hispanics favored Al Gore.

''If you look at the size and scale of the Latino vote, you can see that any significant change in voter preference could determine the outcome in those states,'' Muñoz said.

Meanwhile, the Mi Familia Vota group says its registration drive was the most successful in the country, a contention other national organizations are not disputing.

''Nobody has invested in Hispanics like this before,'' said Jorge Mursuli, president of the Miami Chapter of People For the American Way, a liberal-leaning organization that oversaw the drive with a budget of about $1 million. Its goal was 50,000 new voters.

''What is going on politically is that these people are starting to become part of the American fabric,'' Mursuli said.

Of those Mi Familia Vota registered, 30.5 percent chose the Republican Party, 30.3 percent signed up as Democrats and 38.1 percent chose not to sign up with either party, Mursuli said.

Most of the new registrations, about 41,500, were from Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The rest came from Central Florida.

In an effort to reach Hispanic voters, the Bush campaign has spent $3.5 million advertising in Hispanic media, said campaign spokeswoman Sharon Castillo.

The Bush campaign is preparing this week to launch its ninth Spanish language television ad and seventh Spanish radio ad, all of them aired in Florida.

But those new voters are also being targeted by New Democratic Network's new 30-second ads, which come as Democrats hope to siphon a fraction of the mostly Republican Cuban-American community from President Bush.

''If one-half of one percent of Cubans had stayed home in 2000, we'd be talking about Al Gore's re-election,'' said Garcia, the network's recruiter who is also speaking at UM today.

``That's how big the Cuban-American voting bloc is.''

ALL TALK

One of the spots features Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez, who is a Democrat. It accuses Republicans of talking about Cuba but failing to deliver.

But the ad steers clear of the president's controversial crackdown on travel to Cuba, instead arguing that Democrats are better suited to deliver health care and jobs.

''We're keeping to the economy and health care because those are the issues we've framed for our campaign, across the board,'' said Maria Cardona, who is directing the group's Hispanic outreach program.