- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

The Democrats worry President Bush could cut deeply enough into the large Hispanic vote to guarantee his re-election. So much so that, earlier this month, party strategists voiced such concerns behind closed doors at a congressional retreat in the Virginia mountains.

They were responding to a surprisingly frank campaign strategy memo that painted a grim picture of their party’s prospects with this politically pivotal voter bloc — unless something is done to blunt Mr. Bush’s popularity in the Hispanic community.

The memo, a copy of which I obtained from a Democratic Party official, indicated Hispanics are now the largest and fastest-growing minority group in the country. Their vote made up about 6 percent of the electorate in the 2000 election, but this year it will be about 9 percent.

Mr. Bush managed to attract 35 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000, while Al Gore drew 62 percent (despite such a high number, it is a relatively poor showing for the Democrats, who once considered this minority vote to be theirs for the asking).

The president, however, doesn’t need to increase his margin among Hispanics that much to crush the Democrats in November. According to the memo, “The Republicans are not aiming to get the majority of the Hispanic vote, they don’t need it — they only need 5 or 6 more percentage points to win. And they are being incredibly aggressive about making it happen.”

The memo, presented by Maria Cardona, vice president at the New Democrat Network and the party’s leading expert in Hispanic outreach, explained what she called a “monumental sea change” in the Hispanic vote over the past 15 years.

The GOP’s hottest election target is the Spanish-speaking Hispanic voter, a major slice of the electorate Miss Cardona says “is arguably the most volatile, persuadable swing voter group in American politics.”

The percentage of Hispanic voters in the United States who were foreign-born and spoke mostly Spanish was about 18 percent in 1988. Today, that percentage has exploded to 51 percent.

“This means that the majority of Hispanic voters in this country were not born here, speak mostly Spanish at home, do not have the history or legacy with the Democratic Party that second- or third-generation Hispanics may have, are more socially conservative than U.S.-born Hispanics, and they do not necessarily see the government as a ‘friendly entity,’” according to the memo.

“This is clearly a ‘swing vote’ group” that “swings harder and quicker than any other constituency,” Miss Cardona told her party. “They are the ones that have been open to the overtures Republicans have consistently been making for the past several years and on which Democrats need to concentrate in order to keep or increase the Democratic advantage among [Hispanic] voters.”

Republicans and the Bush-Cheney campaign have “aggressively and very effectively used Spanish-language TV” as the primary vehicle to reach this Hispanic vote. And the GOP’s message of strong families, upward mobility, economic aspirations, homeownership, education and strong national security in the war against terrorism is resonating with them, the memo indicated.

Why?

“Because the message is seen as coming from Bush himself, someone who can speak a bit of Spanish and who is comfortable being around and interacting with [Hispanics],” Miss Cardona says.

“The combination of positive themes, using Spanish-language television, and having the president and the Bush family as messengers has proven to be a powerful one,” she told party leaders.

The evidence for Mr. Bush’s appeal with this key swing vote was seen in 2002, when he drew 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in a hypothetical match-up with Mr. Gore, who got 46 percent. Mr. Bush’s numbers have shrunk since then, but his campaign hasn’t begun its Hispanic ad campaign, expected to be unprecedented in size and cost.

This is why Miss Cardona warned Democratic leaders they could no longer take the Hispanic vote for granted. Democrats must spend money, and a lot of it, to pay for saturation ads on Spanish-language radio and television if it they are to hold their own against Mr. Bush and his party.

Democrats still have a 2-to-1 advantage in Hispanic support, but Miss Cardona told congressional leaders, “We must answer the aggressive Republican challenge if we are to maintain and increase our lead.”

Senior Bush strategists told me last week they now believe the Hispanic vote will be key to the outcome of this year’s election. Mr. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are popular with Hispanics and the Republican ads will feature both of them as well as other Bush family members.

Internal Republican polls show Hispanic support for Democrats continues weakening in key areas, especially on values, faith and building stronger families — Republican themes expected to resonate with Hispanic voters in the fall campaign.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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