Campaign Hillary: Se Habla Español

If it's true the Democratic Party is getting in touch with its Latin side, then Hillary Clinton is lining up to tango.

After the desastroso 2004 presidential election, when the Democratic ticket failed throughout the heavily Hispanic Southwest, New York's junior senator seems determined to avoid a repeat. She has invited pollsters to speak privately with her staff about the nation's newest power constituency, laying out the numbers, analyzing what went wrong. And she's actively courting Latino voters, taking steps not just to retain her Hispanic base, but to expand it.

On Monday, the putative 2008 presidential candidate traveled to Philadelphia to speak at a conference of the National Council of La Raza, the largest Latino civil rights group in the country. There, Clinton shared the dais with President Bush's education secretary, Margaret Spellings, whose remarks about the administration's school initiatives received a polite yet lukewarm response. Clinton's remarks, on the other hand, drew three standing ovations from the 2,000-strong crowd of Hispanic movers and shakers.

She played to her audience well, touching on hot issues for the Latino community. She delivered a 30-minute speech, without notes, that highlighted a "Washington agenda" for education, health care, and an economy where "everyone has a fair shake." Announcing two new bills that would help deal with the high rates of asthma and lead poisoning among Hispanic children and backing a measure to let illegal immigrants attend college, she provided substance to go with her flash. She commended the audience for "doing your part" but added, "I don't know if your government is doing its part." At that, the crowd erupted in applause, and kept on cheering.

"You have made America stronger for all of us," she concluded, "and together I believe we can build an America that is stronger for those who come after us."

As Clinton left the stage, Monica Lozano, chair of the La Raza board, shook her head and told the crowd, "What an inspiration!"

Clinton and the Democrats could use more responses like that. The party has been losing ground among Latino voters just as more of them are turning out at the polls—7.6 million last year, up from 6.2 million in 2000. And because the Hispanic population keeps growing, the turnout should only increase. By 2020, pollsters estimate, 20 million Latinos will cast ballots.

As Arturo Vargas, of the National Association of Elected and Appointed Latino Officials, puts it: "The road to the White House goes through Latin neighborhoods."

John Kerry might have made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue if only he had done better among Latinos. Although Kerry won the Hispanic vote last year, he did so by a smaller fraction than any Democratic presidential candidate in recent history. He captured 59 percent of the vote, continuing a steady decline from Bill Clinton's 73 percent in 1996 and Al Gore's 62 percent four years earlier.

Why the setbacks? For starters, says Paul Rivera, a Democratic operative from the Bronx who served as senior political adviser on Kerry's campaign, the leadership blew its Hispanic outreach. "Our party's failure," he explains, "had to do with a misappreciation of how the Hispanic population breaks down."

Rather than plot a state-by-state strategy, the Kerry camp went national. The assumption, Rivera says, was that Latino voters would break as they did in 2000. Yet this ignored nuances—the ways immigrants might differ from native-born Hispanics, say. Among Cubans, the litmus test of politicians can be strategies for dealing with Fidel Castro. Among Mexicans, debate centers more on immigration policy. And then there are the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, many of whom live in the solidly blue Northeast and saw little of the Democratic message.

In battleground Southwestern states, the Hispanic team struggled for resources, and appearances by the multilingual Teresa Heinz Kerry weren't enough. Kerry spent less on Spanish-language media—$2.9 million—than Gore, though his overall campaign was twice as expensive.

Over at Bush campaign headquarters, Republicans went after Latinos with gusto. They devised specific efforts for specific segments of the population, forking out $5.5 million on Spanish-language media. And their message resonated. Ads were big on symbols, with images of American flags, of parents hugging kids, of students graduating. They were built around a powerful theme: "Nos conocemos" ("We know each other").

Outflanked, the Democrats learned the hard way that Hispanics have become more a swing vote than a base constituency. Sergio Bendixen, a pollster with the New Democrat Network who has briefed Senator Clinton's staff on his analysis of '04, views Latinos as "the most important swing vote" for the party these days. That's especially true among immigrants. Native-born Hispanics voted 65 percent for Kerry, just as 64 percent had voted for Clinton in '96. But immigrant support plummeted from 82 percent in '96 to 52 percent last year.

"Hispanic voters have shown how available they are to being romanced by the Republican Party," Bendixen says, even though "we're talking about a group of voters who don't benefit from Bush policies."

Since President Bush assumed the Oval Office, in fact, 500,000 more Latino kids have fallen into poverty, 1.5 million more Hispanic families have lost health coverage, and Hispanic median income has dropped every year.

Rivera finds it so "incredibly frustrating" that Democrats are losing what should be a natural base that he has vowed to set his party straight. Calling themselves the Coronado Project, he and members of Kerry's Hispanic team have critiqued the handling of minority outreach last year and offered recommendations. On May 22, they sent a 12-page memorandum to Democratic bigwigs and '08 favorites, including Senator Clinton.

"If the Democratic Party does not improve its performance with Latinos," they warned, "it's doomed."

On the surface, Clinton doesn't seem to lack for Hispanic support. In 2000, she defeated Republican Rick Lazio by a landslide among Latinos, winning 85 percent of the vote. And she's made sure to woo these voters ever since, showing up at everything from the city's Puerto Rican Day Parade to the Hispanic Caucus dinner in Albany. She also makes the rounds at summits held by Latino political groups like Somos el Futuro ("We Are the Future") and the State Assembly's Hispanic Caucus.

She comes and she stays," says Assemblyman Peter Rivera, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the Hispanic Caucus. "It shows she has a genuine concern for our platform."

Back in the '90s, she hosted a White House conference on Hispanic women and children. As senator, she has fought to keep federal funding for Head Start, migrant education, and child-care initiatives, and has pushed a bill that would ensure immigrant pregnant women and their children receive health care. Until her two-year term ended last week, she co-chaired the Senate Democratic Hispanic Task Force.

That her team includes Hispanics doesn't hurt either—her chief political strategist, Patti Solis Doyle, is Mexican American. Both of Clinton's Senate offices, in D.C. and Manhattan, have Hispanic staff. And with the launch of this month, she became one of the few pols to offer an entire website in both Spanish and English.

Yet in New York, Latinos have become anything but a guarantee for Democrats. In 2001, just a year after Clinton won the Hispanic vote, Republican Michael Bloomberg sailed into the mayor's office after defeating Democrat Mark Green among the same Hispanic voters, 51 to 49 percent. That translates into 35 percent of the city's Hispanic voters crossing over.

Factor in the changes last year and anything goes. "Every Democrat is going to have to earn the Hispanic vote now even more than ever before," says Adolfo Carrion Jr., the Bronx borough president. And while Clinton has capital among Latinos nationwide—"It doesn't hurt her one bit that Bill was so popular with Hispanics," he explains—she's still going to have to work it.

On Monday, she did as much, playing up her ties to La Raza, presenting herself as a champion of its causes. Her advisers, of course, are sticking to the script of talking only about '06, but do acknowledge the appearance has some meaning.

"Clearly," says Ann Lewis, the campaign spokesperson, "the senator saw this as an opportunity to speak with an organization that represents an important and growing group of New Yorkers and Latino voters generally."

The approach seems to be working. La Raza president Janet Murguia, a former staffer for President Bill Clinton who introduced Hillary before her speech, says Latino advocates, business people, and politicians saw the senator's July 18 appearance as "a commitment to the Hispanic community."

And it's working closer to the grassroots, too. Elba Montalvo, of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families, who works in Manhattan and traveled to Philadelphia for the speech, calls the senator's cameo "a wonderful thing." She adds, "I guess she's looking towards the future."

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