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Inside Politics

Hispanics could hold key to a win

Traditionally Democrat, with independent streak

By Greg Botelho
CNN

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MIAMI LAKES, Florida (CNN) -- At Hale's Health Foods on 67th Ave. in the heavily Latino town of Miami Lakes, conversation doesn't revolve around herbal teas, vitamin supplements or low-fat snacks, it's focused on presidential politics.

Self-proclaimed independents Michael Maldonado, of Puerto Rican descent, and Angela Garrison, a Cuban-American, go toe-to-toe on the presidential candidates this October morning.

"It's going to be a very close election," said Maldonado, a Web page designer. "People talk about it all the time."

The discourse in showdown states like Florida is common.

Communities like Miami Lakes, which is two-thirds Latino, could determine who will reside in the White House.

And while Latino voter participation traditionally lags behind that of whites and African-Americans, a growing population and extensive voter outreach efforts should mean 1 million more Hispanics voting this year than in 2000, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.

Latinos could sway the outcome in pivotal states such as Florida (where NALEO predicts 160,000 more Hispanic voters in 2004 than in 2000), Arizona (a 70,000 rise), New Jersey (23,000), New Mexico (11,000) and Colorado (8,000).

These projections would seem to bolster Sen. John Kerry given Latinos identify themselves as Democrats more than as Republicans by a two-to-one margin.

A poll, conducted between September 27 and October 3 for the conservative-leaning Latino Coalition, found Kerry had 47 percent support to Bush's 38 percent (well off the traditional party split) among registered Hispanic voters.

Hispanics "split" their ballots, that is they support candidates from both parties, more often than many, especially African-Americans, who more likely vote exclusively for a party's slate.

"They have demonstrated their willingness to cross party lines, even punish candidates in some cases," said NALEO Executive Director Arturo Vargas. "Latinos have become sophisticated voters. They are not in the back pocket of any party."

Differences, similarities among Latinos

Hispanics represented 13.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, up from 9 percent in 1990. That ratio is expected to hit 24 percent by July 1, 2050, growing to 102.6 million people from the 39.9 million measured in summer 2003.

This population is diverse in its politics. Priority issues vary regionally. Latinos in California are more likely to focus on immigration and alien residency, for example, while Latinos in New York and Chicago place more importance on the war in Iraq, says Clarissa Martinez, director of the National Council of La Raza's public policy advocacy division.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan, organization is dedicated to improving life opportunities for Hispanic Americans, according to its Web site.

Differences can also be profound within a state. In Florida, the state's large Cuban-American population has strongly tended Republican, "going back to the Bay of Pigs fiasco and Cuban Missile Crisis," said Jamie Suchlicki, director of the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.

But while this subset -- particularly older Cuban-Americans -- typically favors tough GOP policies against Cuban leader Fidel Castro, tens of thousands of Latinos have come to the state, particularly central Florida, in recent years from other parts of Latin America.

"There has been greater diversification in recent years, and that's made the population very interesting to watch," said Martinez. "This community is still up for grabs. It's a big factor."

Republicans in Florida and Democrats in Colorado hope the presence of Senate candidates Mel Martinez and Ken Salazar, respectively, on the November 2 ballot will boost the party's presidential prospects. But Latinos' independence complicates any predictions, say experts.

A few themes, though, resonate among most. Vargas says education ranks consistently as a top issue for Latinos worried about ill-prepared teachers, underfunded schools (particularly in urban areas) and soaring Hispanic dropout rates.

"They see their success in this country as tied fundamentally to educational success," said Vargas. "There is a sense of crisis."

In various surveys, Latinos also cite jobs and the economy as primary concerns. Nearly 33 percent of Hispanics lacked health care insurance, as of 2003, according to the U.S. Census Bureau -- more than any other ethnic group.

"The main health care issue for Latinos is ... just being able to see a doctor," Martinez said.

Down to Kerry, Bush

Historically low turnout rates, compared to those of white voters, could temper Latinos' impact on Election Day, especially if the disconnect between many in the community and candidates is not bridged.

In a poll sponsored by La Raza and conducted this summer by Zogby International, 58 percent of Hispanics said political candidates do not sufficiently address issues important to their communities. "We have seen renewed attention on the Latino community," said Martinez about efforts by Bush, Kerry and their affiliates targeting Hispanics in recent months. "But we've also seen some misses."

The campaigns have focused primarily on a quarter of Hispanics nationwide -- not the 75 percent who live in non-battleground states like California, Texas and New York -- notes Vargas.

Beyond voter registration and outreach efforts, the biggest factor in who wins the Latino vote depends on how voters feel about the candidates' policies and character.

Martinez notes that Bush, former governor of a border state who curried Hispanic support in 2000, entered the White House with high expectations that he could diversify the Republican Party. But that hope "has gone unfulfilled," said Martinez.

Kerry's voting record, meanwhile, mirrors many Latinos' priorities in terms of education, social programs and the economy.

"But he hasn't been a visible leader, so he hasn't necessarily secured the Latino vote yet," said Martinez.


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