The Democrat's Hispanic Outreach Counteroffensive

Even if some Democrats are hard-pressed to admit it, their party is on the run and the GOP is coming on fast -- at least as far as Latino voters are concerned.

In this era of perennial campaigns, Democrats and Republicans are already looking toward the 2004 presidential election and beyond. Given closeness of last year's presidential election, both parties are looking hard at Hispanics as a critical swing vote.

Certainly, the Democrats have a big head start. As the party's new Chairman Terry McAuliffe recently told an audience of Democratic supporters in Phoenix, two out of three Hispanics voted for Al Gore last year and 90 percent of Latinos in public office today are Democrats.

But McAuliffe says the GOP's big push to attract Hispanic voters -- and population trends in the Hispanic community -- have the Democrats paying more attention to this key constituency bloc.

In an attempt to fend off the Republicans, McAuliffe has announced a 10-year Hispanic outreach effort. It's designed, party loyalists say, to remind Latinos that when push comes to shove, it's the Democrats who side with them on issues such as health care, education and social security.

As if to prove that they're not taking Latino support for granted -- a growing charge among Hispanic voters -- McAuliffe has peppered his top core of advisors with Latinos.

For instance, McAuliffe hired a Latina, Maria Cardona, to serve as his chief of communications. Ida B. Castro, who headed the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission under Clinton, is now running the Democrat's women's outreach program. A major focus of the party's expensive push to win more seats in Congress in 2002 will target Latino voters in Texas, California, Florida and elsewhere. And McAuliffe, though he declined to divulge an exact figure, announced that he plans to spend millions of dollars on Hispanic outreach efforts in the coming years.

The Democrats have good reason to be nervous. President Bush won about one-third of the nation's Latino vote last year -- a big gain over previous elections -- and recent polls show his popularity growing among Hispanics.

This week, Bush's campaign-style forays into Colorado and Florida feature events specially tailored to appeal to Latino voters. GOP leaders are even making a push for Hispanic voters in California, which Gore won handily last year. The Republicans are now training Latinos to run for office in California.

For now, McAuliffe is right when he says that if Latinos vote on the issues, Democrats will win a majority of their votes. That majority, however, will grow slim, and might even disappear, if Republicans do two things: soften their stances on key issues while convincing Latinos that the so called new GOP is more inclusive.

Earlier this week, for instance, Bush, somewhat uncharacteristically, defended the constitutionality of a federal affirmative action program. And Bush's compassionate gestures toward immigrants have won guarded praise from many Latino leaders.

The question for McAuliffe is whether the Democrats took too long to launch their Hispanic outreach counteroffensive against the Republicans. If so, it might not be long before Bush y los Republicanos are breathing down his neck.

James Garcia is editor and publisher of politicomagazine.com. E-mail the writer at Politico1@aol.com.

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