Obama needs to be cautious with Latinos
By Gebe Martinez
The Politico (Washington, DC), May 14, 2008
When Barack Obama strolled over to the 'barrio' last week, he took a calculated risk.
There, in the left corner of the House chamber where Hispanic Democrats gather during floor votes, the presidential candidate walked into territory dominated by fierce loyalists of his Democratic rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Protocol demanded that Obama not be too pushy, not too ready to act as the 'presumptive nominee,' especially on a day when Clinton had vowed to stay in the presidential race despite Obamas growing tally of votes for the party nomination.
But he is going to need the Latino leaders really need them if he heads the Democratic ticket this year. And the Congressional Hispanic Caucus knows it.
Never before has the Hispanic vote been in such high demand in a presidential race, nor has the Hispanic Caucus been so poised to play a significant role.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain going against the grain of his partys conservatives used Cinco de Mayo to reach out to Latinos and unveil a new Spanish-language website.
Clinton got more popular votes than Obama in Arizona, California and Texas, and she won the Nevada caucus because of her huge margin of support among Latinos.
So Obamas delicate courtship of the Hispanic lawmakers who favor Clinton by a 4-1 ratio underscored how vital Latinos will be in picking the next president. When Obama comes calling again, Hispanics will demand that Latino faces and issues be at the forefront of the Democrats fall campaign.
Compared with Clinton, Obama will have to work at winning Latino support 'probably twice as hard to have significant success,' said Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and key Clinton ally.
Menendez emphasized that Clintons Hispanic supporters in Congress are 'not ready' to switch to Obama. (Democratic Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, the last uncommitted House Hispanic superdelegate, just declared for Clinton, who won his southwest Texas district in the March primary.)
'Should Sen. Obama be the nominee, McCain will only be competitive if theres a lack of a [Democratic campaign] plan, vision, a message and a campaign that understands Latino voters,' Menendez added.
In other words, Hispanics expect money to be spent on Latino staffers, consultants and major media buys in Latino-vote-rich areas to address the disproportionate challenges facing them.
Like other voters, Hispanics want affordable health care. But first, they need an economic stimulus for neighborhood businesses and others who are underemployed so they can have access to health care, said Democratic Rep. Hilda L. Solis, another Clinton supporter from California.
'Obama needs to embrace us more closely and really celebrate our heritage,' Solis said, acknowledging that an Obama nomination would be a 'big switcheroo' for Clintons Latino loyalists. 'We have always been taken for granted [by Democratic nominees]. Now is the opportunity to change that cycle.'
Obama ally Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) has already broached the subject with the Obama campaign.
'As soon as the smoke clears' from the Obama-Clinton battle, Grijalva expects the Illinois senator to spend 'some quality time' with the Hispanic Caucus to start building a mutually beneficial relationship.
'Its a great opportunity, not only for the Obama campaign but for the Democratic Party, to solidify that base,' Grijalva said. 'We are poised to become bigger players in the political arena. Our party has to make that investment' in the Hispanic communities so that down-ballot Democrats also benefit.
Already this year, Latinos have proved their increased political clout.
In 2000, the Hispanic share of the vote was 5.4 percent. This year, Latinos make up about 9 percent of eligible voters. The record-breaking turnout in Democratic primaries and caucuses has included unprecedented numbers of Latino voters.
'McCain took Florida because of the Hispanic vote,' a win that set him on the path toward the GOP nomination, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. Clinton 'is still in the race because of the Hispanic vote. We have defined the race.'
NALEO, the National Council of La Raza, Univision Communications and other groups are behind the national 'Ya es Hora' ('Its Time') campaign, which last year mobilized more than 1 million legal permanent residents to apply for U.S. citizenship. Its voter turnout program for the general election will be focused in California, New York, Texas, Florida, Colorado and Arizona.
Latinos large presence in states that were competitive in the 2004 election such as Florida, New Mexico and Nevada has Democrats and Republicans agreeing that Hispanics could be 'the swing vote' in tightly contested states.
'This year, we have a new generation of Latinos who are turning 18, who are doing so when they know it matters,' Vargas said.
And McCain knows they matter. The Republican must take at least 40 percent of the Hispanic vote to win the White House.
The Arizona senator used to be admired in the Latino community for sponsoring broad immigration reforms that would enforce the borders and offer earned legalization for illegal immigrants. But he raised the ire of Hispanics last year when he backed away from his own bill in order to appease party conservatives.
Now, with immigration having failed as a wedge issue in recent special elections, McCain is inching back to the positions he held before this campaign.
On Cinco de Mayo, the Republican candidate called for a 'humane and compassionate' approach to securing the borders. He recognized 'the important friendship' between the U.S. and Mexico and the contributions Mexican-Americans have made 'to our society, culture, security and economy.' The presumptive GOP nominee also said he will attend in July the convention of the National Council of La Raza, the civil rights group that is demonized by immigration hard-liners.
The Democrats focus 'needs to be on who our opponent is going to be, and thats McCain. Hes a Trojan horse. He looks like hes bearing gifts, but theres nothing in the horse,' Solis said.
Menendez said a ticket with both Democratic candidates (no order specified) would 'guarantee overwhelming turnout and support of the Latino community.'
Obama, meanwhile, needs to earn Latinos trust.
'I dont think theres any question Barack Obama is going to reach out to the Hispanic community,' said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), who backs Obama. 'I know that hes going to reach out and hold the support that Sen. Clinton has had and say, I need you.'