- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two years ago, Republicans fought over immigration and hemorrhaged Hispanic voters. Now they are poised to nominate the one man who can rebuild the Hispanic voter coalition that pushed President Bush twice to victory, the architects of that coalition say.

“I think the only candidate that Republicans have running for president who could retain those votes is in fact Senator McCain,” said the Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., president of Esperanza USA, founder of the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast and a key player in helping Mr. Bush connect with Hispanic voters during his two runs for office.

Democrats have traditionally enjoyed a strong advantage among Hispanic voters, though Mr. Bush changed all that, gaining 35 percent in 2000 and as much as 44 percent in 2004. Two years later, however, Republicans’ support among Hispanics collapsed under the weight of the immigration debate, falling to 30 percent for Republican congressional candidates.

But by fighting his own party on immigration and by having ties to Hispanic leaders, Sen. John McCain emerged as the lone GOP presidential candidate capable of competing with Democrats for Hispanic votes.

“Without a doubt,” said Lionel Sosa, a media strategist who was instrumental in Mr. Bush’s two wins. “All of us are waiting in the wings, we’re waiting for the call. We’re waiting to serve.”

Pollster John Zogby said the Republican Party has been “hemorrhaging, as far as Hispanics are concerned.” But he said the Arizona senator has a broad appeal that can reverse that among Hispanics, who he said are open to his “maverick” image.

“It’s not simply immigration. The election is won in the middle this year, and he has great appeal to independents and to moderates, and that’s on the basis of authenticity, character,” Mr. Zogby said.

It’s a sign of how critical Hispanic voters have become that the 2004 exit poll showing Mr. Bush won 44 percent of Hispanics is under fire. Democrats, some conservative Republicans and Hispanic rights groups argue the actual number is at least 10 percentage points lower.

The key question for Mr. McCain is how close he can come to 40 percent — the threshold Matt Dowd, another architect of the Bush campaign’s Hispanic strategy, said he must hit.

“I don’t know about topping the 40 — this is going to be a big Democratic year for Hispanics, period. But he can at least recoup,” Mr. Zogby said.

Still, Mr. Sosa said Mr. McCain can match Mr. Bush’s showing, but he’ll have to work for it.

“Latinos did not go from voting Democrat to voting Republican in either 2000 or 2004 — Latinos went for voting for the man that reached out,” he said.

Holding steady matters to Republicans because Hispanics are among the nation’s fastest-growing demographic groups. In 1992, they constituted 4 percent of 92 million voters. In 2004, they were 8.5 percent of 122 million voters. This year, they could be 11 percent of 135 million voters, Mr. Zogby said.

But there are signs those voters already are turned off to Republicans, said Andres Ramirez, vice president for Hispanic Programs at NDN, a liberal advocacy group and a successor to the New Democrat Network. He pointed to the news-network exit polls from this year’s primaries, which have shown far-higher participation by Hispanics in the Democratic primaries than in the Republican primaries.

In California, Hispanics were 30 percent of the gigantic Democratic turnout, while they constituted just 13 percent of Republican primary voters. Even in Mr. McCain’s home state of Arizona, where his ties run deepest, only 7 percent of the Republican primary electorate was Hispanic, while they made up 18 percent of Democratic primary voters.

Mr. Ramirez said Mr. McCain can’t do much to win back voters since he has damaged his own name by embracing border security.

“In ‘07 and recently when it’s mattered, McCain betrayed the Hispanic community. He walked away from his own bill,” Mr. Ramirez said. “He made it very clear he’s more concerned about shoring up his own base than he is about maintaining his support with Hispanics.”

Mr. McCain also lags behind the rest of the presidential field in appealing to Spanish-language voters through his Web site. An analysis by Lionbridge Technologies, a business technology consultancy, found that Democratic candidates Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York provide extensive Spanish-language content on their sites but Mr. McCain doesn’t even have a section.

The Hispanic leaders said it also matters who wins the Democratic nomination. Mrs. Clinton has done an excellent job of courting Hispanic votes in the primary, they said, and former President Bill Clinton was wildly popular among Hispanic voters in his two races.

Still, Mr. Cortes said Mr. McCain has a record of working with Hispanics in Arizona, just as Mr. Bush did in Texas, and said Mr. McCain has an undeniable appeal.

“His values are very similar, you know — the rugged independence thing. It works with our folks,” Mr. Cortes said.

“The only one that showed compassion on the immigration issue, even to his detriment, was Senator McCain. And while he did move to the right on the issue, he has maintained that you cannot capture and export 12 million people, and that makes him the Republican candidate for Hispanic people. You can count the votes to prove it.”

Mr. Cortes said the challenge for Republicans is not to get in Mr. McCain’s way with a brutal fight over immigration.

“The real question is not Senator McCain, but it is really the Republican Party and all the other races that are local,” Mr. Cortes said. “How will the local politics of the local elections and the Republican rhetoric on immigration at the local level affect McCain on the national level?”

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