Saturday, July 12, 2003

Hispanic leaders are telling Democratic officials that Hispanics are no longer part of the party’s political base because President Bush and the Republicans have made inroads into the nation’s largest minority voting bloc.

In closed-door Democratic strategy meetings to plan for the elections next year, Hispanic leaders and pollsters have painted a picture of declining Hispanic support for the Democrats, warning party officials that if they do not reach out more aggressively to this pivotal group, Republicans likely will make further gains in the 2004 elections.

“If we don’t do that and don’t do that now, the Democrats will not enjoy additional support from the Latino community because what has happened is that, even though Bush has lost some support this year, most of that support has gone to the undecided column,” said Maria Cardona, who heads up a Democratic drive to rebuild political and cultural connections with Hispanic voters.

“We can no longer be considered a base vote” for the Democrats. “If they don’t follow up, they risk losing additional [Hispanic] support to the Republicans,” she said in an interview. “Democrats cannot take Latinos for granted, or they will suffer the consequences. Democratic support among Latinos has been trimmed.”

The party has been ignoring election numbers showing the Republican Party’s inroads over the past several years, said Ms. Cardona, a former Democratic National Committee official who is director of the Hispanic Project at the New Democrat Network (NDN).

Mr. Bush captured 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in the 2000 election to Vice President Al Gore’s 62 percent. That shift represented a sharp decline for the Democrats. President Bill Clinton got 72 percent of their vote in 1996, while Republican challenger Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas won only 20 percent.

But the Democrats’ performance only worsened last year in the congressional elections. A post-election poll conducted by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found that the Republicans won over 39 percent of the Hispanic vote, 16 points higher than a previous NDN poll had forecast.

Another Democratic poll conducted by the NDN in 2002 showed that Mr. Bush, riding a wave of popularity in the war on terrorism, would have gotten 44 percent of the Hispanic vote against any Democratic challenger at that time. “That clearly shows that Latinos were increasingly looking at the Republican Party as an option,” Ms. Cardona said.

Since then, Mr. Bush’s Hispanic support has fallen to 34 percent, according to an NDN poll by Sergio Bendixen last month, a level that is more consistent with his earlier election margin. Even so, Hispanic presidential preference for the Democrats also has fallen to 48 percent — a 14-point drop since the 2000 elections.

“The Democrats’ own pollsters are telling the Democratic Party that because they have failed to deliver for the Hispanic community, the Hispanic voters are finally noticing,” said Sharon Castillo, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “If you are a Democrat, this is nothing to be proud of.”

Notably, though Mr. Bendixen’s latest polls found that 58 percent of Hispanics say they will vote Democratic in congressional elections next year and 20 percent will vote for Republicans, another 20 percent said they were undecided.

“This means that a large bloc of Hispanic voters can go either way next year. Their votes are up for grabs,” an unidentified Democratic Party official said.

In response to Ms. Cardona’s presentation at a recent meeting with Democratic leaders and growing complaints from Hispanics that they were being taken for granted, House and Senate Democrats proposed a hastily crafted agenda last week. It included promises to gain legal status for illegal immigrants working in the United States, a higher minimum wage and more money for education and other social welfare programs.

Rep. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, the highest ranking Hispanic ever in Congress, yesterday urged Hispanics to support Democrats. Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, he ranks third in the chamber’s Democratic leadership.

“Democrats have always stood with Hispanic families,” Mr. Menendez said, delivering his party’s weekly radio address, “and unlike our Republican counterparts, our work on behalf of the Hispanic community does not begin during election season and end with the closing of the polls on Election Day,” Mr. Menendez said.

To bolster the Democratic Party with Hispanics, there is also a growing movement in the party to promote New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the nation’s only Hispanic governor, as its 2004 vice presidential nominee.

“I’m hearing that a lot. He would certainly be on the short, short list,” Ms. Cardona said.

Mr. Richardson is also in the midst of raising between $3 million to $5 million to train and build a cadre of Hispanic campaign workers. “The Republicans don’t have that same kind of person who speaks for the [Hispanic] community,” said Democratic strategist Joe Velasquez.

Democratic National Committee sources say that DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe is considering Mr. Richardson for chairman of the national convention next year in New York, a high-visibility post.

Republican Party officials say they also are preparing a major, heavily funded campaign to court Hispanics next year. Among their plans is a heavy TV and radio ad campaign to inform Hispanics how Senate Democrats blocked an up-or-down vote on Miguel Estrada, the president’s nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals.

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