Obama's grass-roots Latino strategy

Times Staff Writers

To learn how Barack Obama hopes to break Hillary Rodham Clinton's grip on the potentially crucial Latino vote on Super Tuesday, look beyond the neighborhoods of Los Angeles and New York, and follow the muddy path past Jose Perez's modest house here to the garage out back.

Until recently, the garage was littered with tools, and Perez kept his prized 1968 Chevy pickup inside. Now the truck sits out in the winter weather. The garage has become a bustling campaign headquarters, with computers, voter lists and precinct maps.

Obama's political strategists say places like Greeley and volunteers like Perez, 64, a bus driver, will play a key role in helping the Illinois senator win the Democratic presidential nomination.

On the surface, that may seem improbable. Greeley -- an isolated meat-packing and farming center on the high plains northeast of Denver -- has long been considered unpromising territory for Democratic presidential hopefuls. And Perez is such a political neophyte that when he tried to organize a march last year, he and four friends were the only ones to show up.

As if those weren't handicaps enough, some polls have shown Obama trailing Clinton among Latinos by a 3-to-1 margin. Many Latino voters have a deep-rooted relationship with the senator from New York and her husband. Clinton advisors are confident that this will serve her well Tuesday in states with large Latino populations, including California, New Mexico, Arizona and New Jersey.

Nonetheless, the Obama campaign has put substantial money and energy behind the idea that newly minted political activists like Perez -- working in places that are not a major focus for the Clinton campaign -- ultimately will yield a rich harvest of delegates.

Their bet: that they can take advantage of elaborate rules for the allocation of delegates. Rather than using a winner-take-all system, Democrats will award delegates to candidates in each Super Tuesday state according to the share of the vote they win.

That means that even in states where Clinton is on track to win the most votes, such as New York and New Jersey, Obama could emerge with a large share of delegates too. And in other states, the Obama camp hopes its strategy will boost it to an outright win in the statewide vote -- or, in the case of Colorado, to a win in the state's nominating caucuses.

That strategy, in turn, has prompted the Obama campaign to look not only at metropolitan centers for votes, but to areas such as Greeley, Tucson and Las Cruces, N.M., where it is making a special effort among Latino voters.

One architect of the strategy is Cuauhtemoc "Temo" Figueroa, national field director for the Obama campaign. Figueroa, who grew up in Spanish-speaking Riverside County neighborhoods, is spending much of his time not in Los Angeles but in Fresno, the Central Valley and the Inland Empire.

He says these areas, which are less of a priority for the Clinton campaign, can yield significant numbers of delegates.

Neither Obama nor Clinton is ignoring urban centers. Clinton will campaign in East Los Angeles today. Obama campaigned Friday in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) appeared at an Obama rally Friday at East Los Angeles Community College, where he invoked his late brother Robert and the family's work with Latino farm workers.

In halting Spanish, which drew cheers, Kennedy said that "a vote for Obama is a vote for the people."

But Obama's effort outside the main population centers is deeper and more aggressive than any in recent memory, some political veterans say. He has a dozen offices scattered across Colorado. In Telluride, a local paper reported, Obama opened the first presidential campaign headquarters since the town was founded during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, in 1878.

"We have never seen this before," said David Delgado, a Greeley native and chairman of the Weld County Democratic Party. "I think it could be effective, because they are showing attention to a place that doesn't usually get it."

Still, the Clintons can boast of long roots and formidable friends in the Latino community. One of Hillary Clinton's key surrogates is union icon Dolores Huerta, who led the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez. She has been traveling to heavily Latino regions of states that will vote Tuesday.

When Huerta led a rally last week in Pueblo, Colo. -- at the Dolores Huerta Preparatory High School, down the street from Cesar Chavez Academy -- the value of her endorsement was clear. One Clinton supporter showed up with a picture of himself and Chavez.

Another Clinton backer, steelworker Louis Vigil Jr., recalled meeting the senator in 1992, when she came to Pueblo to campaign for her husband. Asked how Sen. Clinton had developed such a close tie with his community, Vigil quickly replied: "It's Bill."

"Sen. Obama is trying to develop a relationship with our community," Huerta said, "but he's just not there yet."

The Obama campaign said it is lagging because he only recently emerged as a national figure, and it has strongly dismissed any suggestion that Latino voters are reluctant to back an African American. Speaking to reporters Friday in Los Angeles, Obama said that he is "at a disadvantage relative to Sen. Clinton, because she's universally known."

To introduce himself, Obama is deploying Spanish-language ads and other campaign messages designed to sharpen his differences with Clinton. In particular, Obama is emphasizing his support for issuing driver's licenses to immigrants, regardless of their legal status.

That represents a considerable gamble. His position may attract Latinos but is likely to stir anger among other voters -- especially in Greeley, where the Republican mayor was turned out of office last year for showing empathy for illegal workers caught in an immigration raid.

Clinton stood by her opposition to driver's licenses for illegal immigrants during a debate Thursday with Obama in Los Angeles. "Otherwise, I think you will further undermine the labor market" by helping employers use undocumented workers to drive down wages and displace legal workers, she said.

Obama also is hoping that his life story will help his appeal to Latinos. His campaign messages say Obama has a special understanding of those who come to the United States from other countries, especially people of color, because his father came to America as a foreigner.

"It's not like Hillary doesn't fight the fight. She does. But Obama has lived it," Figueroa said. "He physically understands the pain, the depression and the hardship that we have gone through."

The Clinton campaign also is devoting millions of dollars to Spanish-language advertising, using messages crafted by Miami-based Latino strategist Sergio Bendixen.

Where Obama's main message to Latinos is that he is one of them, Clinton casts herself as a longtime advocate for the Latino community. Her approach mirrors what Bendixen has called the "I love you" strategy employed by President Bush in 2004, when he used highly personal messages to accentuate his close cultural ties to Latinos.

One new Clinton ad running in California and other Western states is called "Our Friend," and it features Clinton sitting on a couch with a Latino family, kissing a baby. A video on Clinton's website shows demonstrations in favor of an immigration-law overhaul, with some in the crowd waving Mexican flags as well as American flags.

The outlook for Obama was not promising last year when Perez first started working for him in Greeley. Perez had seen Obama's much-noted address to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and felt inspired. "It gave me a sense of hope for the country that I hadn't felt since John F. Kennedy was president," he said.

Now Perez participates in daily meetings at his garage -- newly remade into a campaign office. "The Road to the Presidency Runs Through Greeley," a hand-painted banner proclaims.

The daily sessions include paid Obama organizer Joan Kato, who was raised in the Los Angeles area but moved to Iowa as a teenager and is credited with a major role in Obama's success there.

In addition to talking up Obama in Latino neighborhoods, Perez, Kato and volunteers throughout the West will hit Latino churches this weekend, distributing literature designed to combat rumors that Obama is a Muslim.

The Obama campaign will hand out a flier featuring a photograph of the senator looking deep in thought that carries the headline: "Called to Christ: The Testimony of Barack."

It tells the story of Obama's decision to join Trinity United Church of Christ, his faith in the Bible and his belief that sin can be redeemed through good works.

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tom.hamburger@latimes.com

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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Hamburger reported from Greeley and Wallsten from Pueblo. Times staff writers Maria L. La Ganga and Hector Becerra in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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