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Commentary: Latino voters want a better idea of 'change'

  • Story Highlights
  • Leslie Sanchez: Obama missed opportunity to reach out to Texas Latinos
  • Latino voters are wondering what exactly "change" means in this election
  • Obama and Clinton didn't spent enough time on Cuba in last debate, Sanchez says
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By Leslie Sanchez
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: To read Roland Martin's commentary, "For Clinton to win, she should focus on economy," click here.

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Commentator Leslie Sanchez discusses what "change" means for Latino voters.

(CNN) -- The debate between Democrats Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois was long on rhetoric and -- where Hispanics are concerned -- short on reality.

The bigger loser after Thursday night's debate in Austin was Sen. Obama, not because he made any critical missteps so much as he missed the opportunity to connect with Texas Hispanics in any meaningful way.

And, as Robert Caro's multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson reminds us, Hispanics historically hold the keys to victory, at least in party primaries.

Several Hispanics I spoke with in south Texas on Friday tell me about Hispanic Democrats who have remained reluctant to commit to Clinton. They are open to Obama's message. But these voters are wondering, as are independents and even some Republicans, what all this talk about "change" really means.

Though voters may not have a strong sense about his liberal philosophies, they seem to appreciate Obama's approachable demeanor and passion. Clinton just doesn't come close. It's like comparing a dolphin to a frozen mackerel.

Personal charisma is an important element of the American Hispanic experience. Obama's undeniable charisma, therefore, has helped to broaden his appeal, to young Latinos especially.

But Thursday night's debate had each candidate checking off the boxes on the standard list of minority entitlements while offering tired bromides aimed to strike a response chord with the victim-class. But just who are the victims?

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On trade

Texas is pro-trade. Its economic well-being depends on its international ports -- on land and on sea. And it's a right-to-work state. Sen. Clinton was rewarded with an awkward silence when she said, "We're going to stop giving a penny of your money to anybody who ships a job out of Texas, Ohio or anywhere else in the country."

Really? While many may argue that NAFTA and other free-trade agreements are not perfect, it's hard to convince voters in south Texas in places like Laredo -- which has the largest inland trade port in America -- that we need a "trade time out." Clinton's proposal is a job-killer.

Gerald Schwebel, a senior vice president for IBC Bank, the state's largest Hispanic-owned bank based in Laredo, agrees.

"There is no question that trade has contributed volumes to the quality of life in Texas," he said.

And protecting free trade and free flow of commerce between the U.S. and Mexico has become a paramount struggle for IBC and many border communities.

On taxes

Texas is also home to 20 percent of the nation's Hispanic-owned businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And the family- and community-oriented people who own these businesses, many of which classify as small businesses that pay taxes as individual rates, do not regard the Bush tax cuts as "tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans."

Letting the Bush tax cuts expire, as both Obama and Clinton have pledged to do, will be seen by these voters as a massive tax increase, not the restoration of fairness in the system.

To build a fence

These same communities hold a distinct view about building a fence. In 2006, Clinton and Obama both voted to construct a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. But what a difference two years -- and a presidential campaign -- make.

Polling for the nonprofit organization Let Freedom Ring, conducted in 2006 by my firm in conjunction with RT Strategies, found the overriding immigration issue for all respondents, including Hispanics, is national security.

This is especially the case for Hispanics living in border states like Texas. Among Hispanics who cite a potential nexus between terrorism and illegal immigration, 70 percent favored the construction of a southern border fence.

Hispanics living here legally know -- just like the rest of us -- how easy it is to get illegal contraband or terrorists across a porous border, and they resist mild-mannered solutions that appear weak or ill-conceived. Video Watch as both candidates discuss the border controversy »

Here give Obama credit for helping to tamp down the overheated rhetoric on both sides.

Foreign policy

If the war on terrorism was the first elephant in the room no one would talk about, Cuba is the second. Fidel Castro has finally ceded power after more than 40 years of dictatorial rule, albeit to his brother Raul. Nevertheless, the U.S. needs to begin to plan for a post-Castro Cuba.

Neither Obama nor Clinton spent enough time on this. Increased trade will certainly result once U.S.-Cuba relations are eventually normalized -- meaning more jobs for Texas -- but neither seems to have a plan. Video Watch as Clinton and Obama take on the Cuba issue »

The 2008 election is not about "the economy, stupid," or "jobs, jobs, jobs." And if, as both Clinton and Obama suggest, though Obama does it better, the election is about "change," both candidates continue in their failure to explain in any meaningful way what that means.

And it's not just enough to convince the voters that "change" is necessary. In most every case, you need to get them to buy into what that change will be before you can get them to vote for it.

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Leslie Sanchez was director of the White House Initiative on Hispanic Education from 2001 to 2003 and is the author of "Los Republicanos: Why Hispanics and Republicans Need Each Other."

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

All About ImmigrationU.S. Presidential ElectionCubaNAFTAHispanic and Latino Issues

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