- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

President Bush's popularity is growing with Hispanics, and it's the result of careful work through a lacework of communications strategies, policy initiatives, high-level appointments and foreign visits — masterminded not by the president's policy mavens but by his chief political strategist.
In an interview in his White House office, Karl Rove, who guided the Bush presidential campaign, gleefully points to a Gallup Poll completed a week ago finding that Hispanics now give a 59 percent approval rating to Mr. Bush — up sharply from the 31 percent he won of the Hispanic vote in November.
This is crucial because the Hispanic vote is not only the fastest-growing ethnic bloc in America, but it could be pivotal in states like California, Texas, Florida, Illinois and Pennsylvania.
"We get numbers like that [because] we take our policies to the Hispanic community in a way that it hears and retains, and it knows that we're making a special effort to talk to them," Mr. Rove says.
"Every bit of data shows that Bush and Republicans generically are doing far better among Hispanics than we have done in previous years."
The opposition is reading the same numbers. Sergio Bendixen, a consultant to Democratic candidates, concedes that the president "has made tremendous inroads with Hispanics." As a result, he says, "Democrats are in deep trouble with Hispanics."
Part of the strategy, Mr. Rove says, is the president's emphasis on education, the tax cut, the faith-based initiative, Social Security retirement, "and the high-profile Latino appointments Bush has made in his administration."
More than a dozen of the Cabinet departments, he says, now have Spanish-speaking press aides. "So when [Housing and Urban Development Secretary] Mel Martinez goes on the road to Kansas City, the front page of the Spanish-language newspaper looks fabulous.
"This is being repeated throughout the government. And there's a Latino sensibility about it. When you have Martinez there pushing things and telling his colleagues about it, and people like [Interior Secretary] Gale Norton who are sensitive to it — there are some good things going on there."
Nevertheless, what the White House calls "outreach" is called other things by some of the president's staunchest and oldest friends. They use words like "pandering," and say the president comes close to playing politics with national security to curry favor with Hispanic voters.
Several prominent Republicans criticized his decision, announced June 14, to order the Navy to abandon live-fire readiness training on Puerto Rico's Vieques island by 2003.
They're particularly unhappy because the president has reversed himself on a scheduled referendum on Vieques on whether the Navy should abandon the training site. In his campaign last year the president supported holding the referendum, but now opposes it.
But even the severest critics doubt long-term damage to Mr. Bush or Mr. Rove.
Oklahoma Sen. James M. Inhofe, the most vocal Republican critic in the Senate of the Vieques decision, said, "I don't really know if it damaged Karl Rove" and is "not sure it did that much damage" to Mr. Bush with Republicans beyond the national-security community.
Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Preparedness, who was "appalled" at the president's decision on Vieques, said, "It's hard to estimate the political fallout. Most of what Bush is doing with defense I'm supportive of. That's what makes it so baffling."
David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, thinks the Vieques flap "extends beyond the conservative defense community. A lot of other conservatives and rank-and-file Republicans believe that decision smacked of pandering [to Hispanic dissidents] and gave an easy victory to Al Sharpton."
Nonetheless, Mr. Keene did not think there would be long-term damage with the core Republican vote. "The same people who are unhappy about the Vieques move are nonetheless happy about a lot of other things Bush and Rove do," he said.
"On balance, they have a pretty friendly administration for conservatives and nobody is going to walk off in a huff over whether you can bomb a beach in Puerto Rico," Mr. Keene said.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the Center for Security Policy, said when it comes to the impact on core voters, the difference between former President George Bush's going back on his no-tax pledge and his son's appearing to reverse himself on Vieques is that a large number of rank-and-file conservatives was offended by tax-cut reversal but a smaller group knows and cares about this military-readiness issue.
"He has alienated this smaller group, but, on the other hand, his father had not reached out to conservatives the way [the] son has," Mr. Gaffney said.
Mr. Rove says the Vieques decision was the Navy's and it is "absurd" to think it had anything to do with courting Hispanic voters, who are not homogenous in their views and priorities.
However, Mr. Bush met with Gov. George E. Pataki, New York Republican, before he announced his Vieques decision. Mr. Pataki, sensitive to the large Puerto Rican population of New York, is believed to have lobbied for the suspension of the Navy bombing range. The issue has become fiercely contentious in Puerto Rico.
"If you're a Mexican-American living in Boston or Kansas City, you don't care about Vieques," Mr. Rove said. "But if Mel Martinez comes to town and talks about his life story and this administration's policies to encourage homeownership, and you hear Bush talking a tax cut, education and leaving no child behind, and he's seen with Fox, and the first place he goes when in Europe is Spain — you say, 'Hey, Bush gets it. Our — community is important to this guy.'"

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