Clinton’s Hispanic Edge

Clinton's Hispanic edge

By: Gebe Martinez
Jan 24, 2008 06:12 AM EST

Congressman Luis V. Gutierrez is a strong supporter of Barack Obama, his home-state senator, but theres one aspect of Obamas campaign that he finds maddening: Obamas Latino outreach efforts.

When you are washing dishes and waiting tables and are working these kinds of jobs, you dont pick up Newsweek and find out the phenomenon about Barack Obama, said Gutierrez, who says Latinos dont know Obama.

Gutierrez, who represents a majority-Hispanic Chicago-based district, is frustrated that the campaign has not followed his advice to knock on the doors of Latino voters the fastest-growing segment of the electorate just as Hillary Rodham Clinton did recently in Las Vegas with other prominent Latinos at her side.

Shes running a good campaign, Gutierrez said of the New York senator. Dont blame Latinos and blacks with prejudice. There are a lot of other reasons for Obamas low Latino support, he said.

The reasons, according to those who have watched the campaigns, are clear: Hillary and Bill Clinton are better known, more popular and better at organizing than Obama is. On the same night this week that the leading Democratic presidential candidates were pounding at each other in a South Carolina debate, former President Clinton was on the telephone, recruiting the wonder kid of Nevada politics to pack a bag for California and organize Latino voters for Hillary Clinton.

The field organizer, first-term Nevada Assemblyman Ruben Kihuen, who turned out his own volunteer corps for Clinton at his states caucuses last Saturday, readily agreed to work the California primary on Feb. 5. Not only was she the first lady for eight years, next to one of the most popular presidents in the Hispanic community, which is Bill Clinton, but she really made an effort here in Nevada, Kihuen explained.

In this unprecedented presidential campaign in which a woman, an African-American and a white Southerner are competing for the Democratic nomination episodes like that help explain why Clinton enjoys a wide margin of support among Latino voters over Obama and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.

Gutierrez agreed that Clintons popularity with Hispanics is hard for Obama to overcome, just as it was for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Hispanic who ended his presidential campaign this month. Clinton also had a huge lead among black voters before they learned more about Obama and viewed him as a viable national candidate.

While political pundits accent a black-vs.-brown rivalry, suggesting that Latinos are reluctant to vote for Obama because he is African-American, the fundamental dynamic in this particular case appears to be that the Clintons are better known and organized in the Hispanic community.

The president nurtured relations with Hispanics as he did with blacks during good economic times, and Hillary Clinton promoted childrens health care before being elected senator from New York.

Long before that, in 1968, she helped organize Hispanic voters in San Antonio. Together the couple is recognized as one of the best political teams in decades, even if the president has been getting pushback from party stalwarts for his aggressive jabs at Obama.

I would expect shes going to do better with Hispanics than Obama [has], principally because she is better known, said David A. Bositis, who studies minority voters for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

The real test for Obama, as the campaign heads into Latino-vote-rich states on Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 will be in terms of how much of the vote he peels away, especially where the contests are tight, Bositis added. One of the things hes going to have to do is become better known in Latino communities.

On Wednesday, Gutierrez and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, who served in President Clintons Cabinet but backs Obama, mulled over how to get their candidate into Hispanic neighborhoods and to better coordinate with his surrogates there.