- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. Gubernatorial candidate John Sanchez is called the "brightest Hispanic star" in the Republican Party, a man who was supposed to be a big cog in the Republican Party's push to woo the Hispanic vote.
"This guy may well be the most impressive Latino in the Republican ranks," said Rudy Fernandez, director of grass-roots development for the Republican National Committee.
Mr. Sanchez, a 39-year-old former American Airlines flight attendant, is brash and telegenic and tanking in the polls.
He sits 18 percentage points behind President Clinton's energy secretary and U.N. ambassador, Bill Richardson, and his campaign, which was once bolstered by national party leaders, has been all but abandoned in favor of congressional candidate Steve Pearce, who is in a tough battle to succeed retiring 11-term Republican Rep. Joe Skeen.
But Mr. Sanchez seems to see what could be rather than what is.
"Think of what a Hispanic as the governor of the state with the largest Hispanic population will mean to the party," says Mr. Sanchez, settling back in an Applebee's restaurant booth in southern New Mexico after a day of campaigning.
He notes quickly that the ages-old Republican bid to budge Hispanics' long-standing Democratic tilt is ailing.
"I am an agent of change for the party," says Mr. Sanchez, who earned his political stripes by ousting the state speaker of the House and 30-year incumbent, Raymond Sanchez, two years ago. "If we are going to grow the party, we have to get that Hispanic vote. And the way we are going to do it is through Hispanic candidates."
The governor's race here is the nation's first all-Hispanic gubernatorial contest in 80 years, and portends Hispanic politics soon becoming a major piece of the national landscape.
Mr. Sanchez's showing here is symbolic of the tough road Republicans face in expanding their traditional 25 percent to 35 percent share of the Hispanic vote.
The party is fielding a record number of Hispanic candidates this year and even a narrowing of Democratic margins with that bloc would represent a victory, said Mr. Fernandez of the Hispanic outreach team for the RNC.
"I look at California and see that if [Republican gubernatorial candidate] Bill Simon can get 30 percent of the Hispanic vote rather than 20, well, we're getting somewhere," said Mr. Fernandez.
Sixteen non-incumbent Republican Hispanics are on the ballot in U.S. House races Tuesday, while 15 are on Democratic ballots.
Democrats have one Hispanic candidate for U.S. Senate, Gloria Tristani, here in New Mexico, while the Republicans have none.
"Look at the division of the Hispanic Congressional Caucus, though," said Guillermo Meneses, Hispanic outreach director for the Democratic National Committee. "Democrats have an 18-3 majority in Congress."
"We are the party of the Hispanics," Mr. Meneses said. "The Republicans are trying to do in two years what it took us 30 years to do: solidify our Hispanic base."
Republicans have done what they can to engage Hispanics in the field of spending money. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the state party and state and U.S. congressional candidates have spent nearly $1 million on outreach to the 17 percent of the state's electorate that is Hispanic.
Mr. Bush has done well not only with Cubans, a Republican stronghold, but also in the Central and South American communities.
And Republicans have made inroads one state over, in Texas, thanks to the coattails of former Gov. George W. Bush, who was wildly popular with the state's Hispanic population.
In addition, says Susan Weddington, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, the party now can rely on Hispanic Republicans to generate support for the GOP.
"This state now has more Hispanic Republican elected officials than any other state," Miss Weddington said. "We rely on our messengers to take our message back to the community."
Her strategy is seeing some success this election season; Democrats had hoped that Hispanics, in tandem with the black vote, would propel to victory their "dream team" of black Senate candidate Ron Kirk and Hispanic gubernatorial hopeful Tony Sanchez.
But the two are lagging behind in the polls Mr. Kirk by at least five percentage points and Mr. Sanchez by as many as 12 points. Mr. Sanchez, a wealthy Laredo banker-oilman who is the first Hispanic to run for governor of Texas, was expected to draw more Hispanic support.
"We still don't see the Hispanics energized or any message resonating," said Chris Begala, a Republican political consultant in Houston.
With the Hispanic bloc projected to rise from 6 million in 2000 to 10 million by 2010, Republican thirst for the Hispanic vote will only increase in the future.
"If you think the Republican push is big this year, wait until 2004," said one Democratic Party official.
The Republican Party's biggest obstacle is someone like Mr. Richardson, 54, who arrived at a recent campaign stop in Albuquerque's battered barrio called the South Valley, looking like many of his supporters.
Clad in jeans, an untucked yellow button-up shirt and cowboy boots, he mingled and mixed after promising to do what he could to fix the neighborhood, "another one of the neglected areas."
They spoke to him in Spanish, hugged him, shook his hand, and bunches of voters jumped in waiting vans to go to the polls to cast their votes early presumably for the Democrat.
Mr. Richardson is doing what Hispanic fence-sitters accuse Republicans of shying away from taking off their ties and getting into the neighborhoods.
"I think President Bush has a good record with Hispanics," Mr. Richardson said. "If he had his way, he would be a threat to capture much of the Hispanic vote. But the rest of the party hasn't done very well, and they have failed to develop the grass-roots idea. As a result, the Republican Party is out of synch."
Hugh Aynesworth contributed to this report in Dallas.

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