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Obama’s ability to win Hispanics questioned

- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

PHOENIX (AP) — His rallying cry echoes the late Cesar Chavez, the Hispanic activist who inspired legions with three simple words, "Si, se puede!"

The loose translation — "Yes, we can!" — has become Sen. Barack Obama's campaign call to arms. But now, some are asking: Can he?

"Let's face it," said popular Spanish-language radio host Luis Jimenez, "Hispanics will vote for a woman president before voting for someone who is African-American."

Going forward in a neck-and-neck race, the ability to win Hispanic voters will prove vital in the March 4 primary in Texas, where nearly 25 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic. Super Tuesday's results among Hispanics spoke volumes: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, exit polls showed, won 63 percent of Hispanic voters, helping propel her to victory in places like Arizona and California, where a whopping 67 percent of Hispanics backed her.

Is this about familiarity, a Johnny-come-lately strategy and a shortage of big-name Hispanic endorsements, or something less tangible and more provocative — a reluctance among Hispanics to support a black candidate?

The suggestion inflames Federico Pena, who served in President Clinton's cabinet and now sits as a national co-chairman for the Illinois senator's campaign.

"That would say that Hispanics are racist. We are not," he said. "What is really going on here is that Hispanics simply don't know this candidate."

Clearly, the New York senator had advantages over Mr. Obama that had nothing to do with color. She is well-known and well-liked among Hispanic voters, who remember fondly her husband's presidency and such appointments as Mr. Pena.

She won coveted — and early — endorsements of prominent Hispanics, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa and Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers with Mr. Chavez. She also got a jump-start wooing Hispanic voters on the ground and on the airwaves, while Mr. Obama's initial underdog status had him focused on early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"Hillary Clinton has a long relationship with the Hispanic community ... based on her work, but also her husband's presidency, so it's not surprising that Hispanics went for her more than Obama," said Susan Minushkin, deputy director of the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center.

A November Pew study found that 74 percent of Hispanics who were familiar with Mr. Obama regarded him favorably. Still, others wonder whether such surveys accurately reflect American life, where tensions among blacks and Hispanics have increased in past years as Hispanic immigrants pour into inner-city neighborhoods, competing with their black neighbors for jobs, housing, services — and a seat at the table on local school boards and town councils.

"We've been fighting in this country for our place — and so is every minority," Mr. Jimenez said, surmising that Hispanics' Super Tuesday snubbing of Mr. Obama stems from viewing him as "a competing minority rather than a serious candidate for president."

Mistrust fueled by racial stereotypes might also contribute, along with prejudices that could have first formed in the class-driven societies of some Hispanics' native lands, where darker-skinned indigenous citizens are sometimes looked down upon by those with lighter skin and a Spanish heritage.