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Commentary: Kennedy nod may be key for Hispanics

  • Story Highlights
  • Kennedy's endorsement of Obama a shortcut to Latino votes, pundits say
  • Navarrette: Many Latinos are immigrants without historical knowledge of Kennedys
  • Jacqueline Kennedy may have made the first TV political ad for Hispanics
  • Navarrette: McCain deserves support of foreign-born who care about immigration
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Sen. Ted Kennedy's endorsement of Barack Obama's presidential campaign is hugely significant. But not for the reasons that pundits suggest.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Sen. John McCain stuck his neck out on immigration reform and deserves Latino support.

It's significant because Kennedy, and other Democratic leaders who have endorsed Obama, are sending a message that they have no desire to return to that soap opera known as the Clinton Chronicles.

And yet, the pundits tell us, being blessed by America's Royal Family of Hyannis Port is also a shortcut to winning over Latino voters, something that could come in handy with primaries next week in Arizona, Colorado, California and New Mexico.

That's the popular line. Part of what makes it popular is that the media is hunting for a way to cover the Latino vote, but it's stuck with a bunch of reporters, editors, producers and analysts who don't know much about Latinos. So they grab on to the Kennedy connection and milk it for all its worth.

There is some history there. A reader recently sent me a link to an extraordinary spool of videotape showing Jacqueline Kennedy in what must be the first televised political ad aimed at Hispanics. In it, Mrs. Kennedy introduces herself, talks about her husband, and then urges people to vote for Jack Kennedy in November 1960 -- all in near-perfect Spanish. She wraps up the pitch with a graceful: "Viva Kennedy."

In March 1968, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- six days before he announced his run for the presidency -- made a pilgrimage to Delano, California, to help farm labor leader Cesar Chavez break a 25-day fast. Three months later, in the California primary, nine out of 10 Mexican-Americans voted for Kennedy -- so great was the affection for the man that my grandmother still refers to as "el Bobby."

Democratic politicians have been trying to re-create that magic ever since, especially if they themselves don't have much experience with Latinos. Bill Clinton attempted it in 1992 when he campaigned in California amid mariachis, taco vendors, and Kennedy grandchildren.

But time passes. The Baby Boomers who helped elect Bill Clinton twice are now scouting out retirement communities. There are two other generations of Americans who are part of the electorate and who have no memory of Camelot. It's doubtful that the members of Generation X and Generation Y are going to take their cues as to who to vote for from Ted Kennedy. Luckily for Obama, that is the age demographic from whom his support is strongest anyway.

Also, many Latinos who will be voting in this year's election are immigrants who came to the United States, became citizens and now have the right to vote. They also don't have the Kennedys as a historical frame of reference.

For the foreign-born, many of whom care deeply about the immigration issue, maybe the person who deserves their support in November isn't the candidate who voted to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border (Barack Obama) or the one who equivocated on giving illegal immigrants driver's licenses only to cave in and oppose it (Hillary Clinton). Maybe it's the guy who stuck his neck out and co-sponsored with Ted Kennedy, no less, a comprehensive immigration reform bill that offered a path to legal status and made him a pariah in his own party.

And maybe it's the person who, despite learning that protecting the border is the first priority, still stuck by his guns about the need for a comprehensive approach: Viva McCain.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About ImmigrationBarack ObamaHillary ClintonJohn McCain

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