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Obama leads in battle for Latino vote

Times Staff Writer

It was called “un mensaje personal a Puerto Rico,” a television spot in which Barack Obama spoke to the camera in stilted but effective Spanish.

“I was born on an island,” he said, “and I understand that food, gas, and everything costs more.”

Obama got trounced in the Puerto Rico primary this week. But the advertisement, with the candidate’s personalized appeal and willingness to try the language, is a sign of the unusual tactics that Obama’s campaign is preparing to deploy on the mainland as it tries to win over a Latino electorate that voted overwhelmingly for his party rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, in Democratic primaries.

Some Democrats have worried that Latinos view Obama warily and will be drawn to Republican nominee John McCain, who has been popular in that community and has campaigned in it aggressively -- already airing Spanish-language radio ads in the heavily Latino battlegrounds of New Mexico and Nevada.

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But there are signs that Obama begins the general election battle for Latinos with significant advantages.

A new Gallup Poll summary of surveys taken in May shows Obama winning 62% of Latino registered voters nationwide, compared with just 29% for McCain. Others have found a wide gap as well. The pro-Democratic group Democracy Corps compiled surveys from March through May that showed Obama with a 19-point lead among Latinos. And a Times poll published last month showed Obama leading McCain among California Latinos by 14 points.

Republicans say McCain’s numbers among Latinos at the moment are disappointing -- far below the goals set by a campaign that has long believed McCain could challenge the traditional Democratic dominance of the Latino electorate.

The numbers suggest that McCain’s image has suffered after a competitive GOP primary in which he renounced some of the moderate views on immigration popular among many Latinos. For example, McCain, who was a chief sponsor of legislation creating a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, now says he believes the government must focus first on securing the U.S.-Mexico border before dealing with illegal workers.

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The new position helped mollify some conservatives who viewed McCain as soft on illegal immigration. But it now leaves the senator forced to come from behind in an area that was supposed to be a strength. And McCain must weigh two competing needs: attracting Latinos in the Southwest and Florida turned off by the GOP’s hard-line opposition to his legislation and mobilizing conservative whites who could prove crucial in Ohio and other battlegrounds.

“If the McCain people don’t realize they need to beef up that operation, then clearly he’s not going to be president,” said Robert de Posada, a Republican consultant on Latino politics.

Obama’s sizable lead has surprised Democratic strategists after a primary campaign that appeared to foreshadow Latinos as a major weakness.

The Gallup survey of Latinos found that Obama, despite his string of losses to Clinton, performed just as well as Clinton in a theoretical matchup against McCain.

Obama is “doing better than anyone imagined at this point,” said Simon Rosenberg, head of the pro-Democratic group NDN, which specializes in Latino outreach. “But he does have room to grow.”

The Obama campaign recently hired a press spokesman to work full time on Spanish-language media.

Helping with the planning is U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Federico Pena, a former secretary of both Energy and Transportation under Bill Clinton.

Also, on Thursday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was a point person for Clinton on Latino outreach, said he would campaign vigorously for Obama, and called him “inspiring.” In comments to reporters, though, Villaraigosa sounded nostalgic about Clinton, praising her “passion and persistence and intestinal fortitude.”

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Richardson said he was in Los Angeles on Tuesday recruiting local Latino actors and comics to serve as surrogates for Obama. It is part of an effort to paint the Illinois senator, who was born in Hawaii and had an African father, as someone who can relate to the immigrant experience. The personal approach is a departure from past Democrats who focused primarily on issue-based appeals.

It is similar in tone to the strategy used by President Bush, who highlighted his Texas links to Latino culture and Mexico -- and won more than 40% of the Latino vote.

“With Latinos, you stress that Obama’s a minority like us,” Richardson said. “You stress that he comes from a modest background.”

Obama does not speak Spanish, but campaign aides said that the Puerto Rico ad showed that he could master pronunciation by studiously rehearsing the script.

Still, some say Obama is far from closing the sale with Latinos.

The Rev. Luis Cortes, a political independent who heads a Latino evangelical network, said Obama had yet to lay out a specific agenda for Latinos and remains very much a stranger compared to Clinton and McCain. Cortes is scheduled to meet with Obama next week in Chicago, and he said Obama has agreed to address a Latino prayer breakfast later this month.

“His campaign has been at 10,000 feet,” Cortes said, “so the question is how do we get to him?”

Both campaigns view the fast-growing Latino vote as crucial to their national strategies. McCain has told some Republicans that he believes his popularity among Latinos might help him in California, for example, and both campaigns are planning to fight it out for Latino votes in Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida -- states that could well decide the Electoral College.

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Steve Schmidt, a McCain strategist, said the campaign was “confident” it would build support over the next five months.

“The reality is we have to do well and we think we can exceed what President Bush did in 2004,” Schmidt said.

“We think we can top 40% of the Hispanic vote in this election.”

The radio ads running in the Southwest promote McCain’s “realistic” plan to “jump-start” the economy. And McCain is trying to show Latinos that, despite his hardened views on immigration, he still will push his party to change its often harsh rhetoric on the issue.

A Memorial Day ad online honored Latino green card holders serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The ad uses a clip from a Republican debate in New Hampshire where McCain called on his fellow party members to “remember that these are God’s children” and said that while immigrants must come to the country legally, “they have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.


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