Commentary: It Takes More Than A Little Español

What's hampering Bush's efforts to woo Hispanics

When the Bush Administration unveiled get-tough measures aimed at cutting off the flow of cash to Cuba in June, the political calculations were obvious. Conservative Cuban Americans are a core bloc for the President in the crucial state of Florida, and hard-liners in the community have long been infuriated that the money Cubans send to their relatives indirectly helps prop up the regime of Fidel Castro.

But the new restrictions -- limiting Cuban Americans' trips to Havana and restricting the gifts and cash they can send to family members -- didn't win the bravos the Administration had been banking on. "Fidel Castro is not a good man," says Ana Karim, a 32-year-old pastor of a Mennonite church in Richmond, Va., who regularly visits an aunt and two ailing uncles in Cuba. "But I get very, very offended when someone tells me how to engage with my family." Indeed, 64% of younger Cuban Americans -- those who arrived after 1985 or who were born in the U.S. -- favor unrestricted travel between the U.S. and Cuba, vs. 32% of the old guard, according to a March poll by Florida International University. With the younger Cuban Americans gaining in numbers and clout, "on a net basis, [Bush] may very well lose politically by this," says Philip Peters of the Lexington Institute, a free-market think tank in Arlington, Va.

The backlash is just another example of the fine line politicians must walk in appealing to the nation's largest and fastest-growing minority group. The President -- who speaks a rudimentary Español -- has made appealing to Latinos a central part of every campaign since his first run for governor of Texas in 1994. In the 2000 race, Bush garnered about 35% of the Hispanic vote -- slightly better than average for the past several Republican nominees.

But Bush's efforts to raise his party's support among Hispanics have hit some rough spots. National polling on Hispanic political attitudes is hard to come by: A March-June 2004 survey by the Pew Center for People and the Press found 53% of Hispanics favored Senator Kerry vs. 41% for President Bush. But because the poll was conducted only with English-speakers, it is not a comprehensive snapshot. Latino leaders, meanwhile, say Hispanics are disillusioned with some of the President's policies. "[Bush has] lost support in the community," says Antonio González, president of the William C. Velásquez Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Los Angeles. Hispanics "thought he would do great things with Mexico and on education. Those expectations haven't been realized."

That could be problematic for the GOP. Latinos make up about 13% of the U.S. population, although they are vastly underrepresented at the polls. Many are not citizens, and even those who are registered to vote do not turn out regularly: Fewer than half of eligible Hispanics voted in the last Presidential election -- or some 6% of the total. Still, if the election is tight, they could make a difference in states such as Arizona and New Mexico, where Hispanics account for 16% and 32%, respectively, of registered voters. And Republicans will need to improve their standing with Hispanics in order to prevail in the future. "The President and Karl Rove have been very consistent in targeting Latinos. They know that in the long run they cannot afford for Latinos to go the way of African Americans," says Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center.

Republicans on every level recognize the Hispanic potential. The Bush-Cheney campaign is spending liberally on Spanish-language television. The Republican National Committee orchestrated voter registration drives in New Mexico and California around Cinco de Mayo, Mexico's May 5 national holiday. And about a year ago, New York's state party unveiled an outreach center in a heavily Dominican -- and Democratic -- neighborhood of Manhattan. Officials say 400 Latinos have registered to vote at the Washington Heights office since March, with the majority pledging their support to the GOP.

Border Skirmish

One is a 32-year-old lifelong Democrat, Raul Acosta, who was changing his party registration to Republican on June 24. Acosta says the party's emphasis on entrepreneurship and conservative social values resonate with his community. "We want to own our own businesses," he explains. "And we are very conservative. Just ask our grandmothers."

Reaching out to Hispanics is more complicated than small biz and family values, though. Luis Martinez stopped by the Republican outreach office to check on his registration -- but his vote, he declares, is going to be in the Democratic column. "Why has Bush spent all of this money on a war when we have so many needs at home?" Martinez asks.

As Bush has tried to woo Hispanics, his own party sometimes gets in the way. In January, the President floated the idea of making it easier for Mexicans to enter the U.S. as guest workers, with no promise of permanent residency. His approach angered anti-immigration conservatives without winning many points with Latino organizations.

The plan was never sent to Congress -- though some Republicans are still holding out the prospect of immigration reform. On June 27, according to The Arizona Republic, Senator John McCain told a Phoenix conference of the National Council of La Raza, a nonpartisan civil rights group: "The human tragedy that is taking place in Arizona and across our border must be stopped. There's a demand to fill jobs that Americans won't do." But Hispanics remain underwhelmed. "We were glad the immigration discussion was reinitiated after September 11," says Ernesto Saldaña of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. "But there needed to be a firmer path to amnesty."

Bush also hopes to lure Latino votes with his No Child Left Behind reforms. Yet Latinos don't believe the tougher standards come with sufficient new funding, according to Sergio Bendixen, president of Bendixen & Associates, a Coral Gables (Fla.) pollster who specializes in the Hispanic electorate and market. "You hear over and over in focus groups that Latinos feel public schools are underfunded," he says. "Latinos may like [Bush] personally, but they are very disappointed in his performance on the issues that impact the quality of their lives."

Republicans insist they're on the right track. Education is Hispanics' No. 1 priority, they say, and Latino parents will respond to Bush's efforts to make schools more accountable for the performance of minority students. They're also counting on the President's personal appeal -- including what even Democrats acknowledge is a rapport with Mexican-Americans -- to bolster his Latino vote. But that will take Bush and the GOP only so far. Figuring out a policy mix that doesn't alienate conservatives yet appeals to a broad swath of Latinos will be as tough as getting Hispanics to show up at the polls.

By Alexandra StarrWith Paul Magnusson in Washington

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