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Latinos may tip balance in New Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Rick Sepulveda can’t make up his mind between Barack Obama and John McCain. The 49-year-old beer salesman thinks the Democrat would do a better job with the economy, but he can’t stomach Obama’s support for abortion, an affront to his faith.

“I’m pro-life. That’s a big issue for me,” Sepulveda said recently, after taking an order at the T&T; Supermart here, 18 miles north of Albuquerque. But, he added, “McCain is another Bush.”

Undecided Latino voters, particularly socially conservative ones like Sepulveda, could play the pivotal role in deciding who wins the five electoral votes in the Land of Enchantment, a state known for razor-thin margins in presidential races. Former Vice President Al Gore won by 365 votes in 2000; President Bush by 5,988 in 2004.

In New Mexico, Obama led McCain in recent polls and has a substantial lead among Latinos. But nearly 1 in 5 Latino voters, who make up almost a third of the state’s electorate, remain undecided, double the rate for white voters.

Many of these voters are torn: drawn to Republicans by their Roman Catholic faith, but to Democrats by their concerns about the economy.

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“A lot of Hispanics in New Mexico are Catholic and . . . wrestle with the values and platform and campaign positions of candidates on both sides,” said J.D. Bullington, a longtime Republican lobbyist who registered as a Democrat this year. “That’s the reason why there’s a large number of undecideds in the Hispanic community. I think they take their time and listen carefully and balance it all out, all the way up to the election.”

This year, with the economy overshadowing nearly every other issue, it’s unclear how much weight voters will give values issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. But the state, while tilting toward Obama, is still in play, and both campaigns are targeting it.

In the week that ended Oct. 4, McCain spent $144,000 on advertising in New Mexico, and Obama spent $185,000. That’s a tiny fraction of what they are spending in other battleground states, but airtime is cheaper in Albuquerque, and both have a steady presence on television. Both are airing Spanish-language ads that blame the other for the failure to reform immigration laws.

The Democratic nominee has 40 field offices around the state, from six in Albuquerque to a single storefront in the tiny southern village of Hatch.

“We thought it was important for us to get beyond the I-25 backbone -- Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Cruces -- into areas where we didn’t do as well as we should have in 2004,” said Obama state director Adrian Saenz, who added that the campaign has mobilized thousands of volunteers. “We’re not taking anything for granted.”

In New Mexico, as in other swing states, the Illinois senator hopes to expand the electorate. In the last month, the campaign has registered more than 35,000 new voters. Now, with voters already casting ballots, staff and volunteers are turning their attention to get-out-the-vote efforts for those newly registered voters and others, with neighborhood canvassing, phone banking and early-voting rallies.

McCain, who has visited New Mexico four times, has a slimmer ground operation, with 10 field offices, plus a presence in the state’s 33 county GOP offices.

“Obama wants to waste his time opening offices here and there,” said Ivette Barajas, spokeswoman for McCain’s New Mexico effort. “Our ground operations are very effective and very strong. We saw that in 2004 with the Bush campaign, and we’re going to see that here.”

The senator from neighboring Arizona is also replicating a 2004 tactic of connecting like-minded volunteers with voters, such as veterans, mothers and social conservatives.

“You see people just like you who live in the same city, have similarities with you,” Barajas said. “You’re more likely to connect with those people.”

She scoffed at Obama’s chances among socially conservative Latino voters. “Hispanics feel that connection with McCain, they know who he is, he has the knowledge and the record,” she said. “The community is asking, ‘Who’s Obama?’ They really, really have to dig deep to get in touch with who this Obama person is.”

Scott Jennings, who ran the state for the Bush campaign in 2004, said McCain needs to energize the southern conservatives to offset the Democratic advantage in large cities. Recalling that the Bush campaign had a high-level representative in the state every week in the month before the election, often in small towns off the traditional campaign trail, Jennings said the McCain campaign needs to do the same.

“The president and his wife and the daughters and the vice president -- everyone at that level of the campaign lavished New Mexico with attention and visits,” he said, recalling one day when Bush held three rallies that attracted 45,000 voters. “I still to this day believe that attention was crucial.”

Bush won over socially conservative Latinos in rural communities and ended up with 38% of the Latino vote statewide.

Churches have played a smaller role in the presidential campaign this year, though there have been reports of some leafleting in parking lots.

“It probably would start heating up about now,” said Joe Monahan, who runs a well-read nonpartisan New Mexico political blog. “Four years ago it seemed to be pretty overt.”

Esperanza Arellano, 28, an administrator for Rock Christian Outreach’s school in Espanola, said her pastor had stressed the importance of voting for candidates who oppose abortion, though he has not named a candidate.

It’s a message that has resonated with Lorenzo Lavato of Albuquerque. The 27-year-old, who works as a mechanic while studying civil engineering at the University of New Mexico, is a registered Democrat and was initially for Obama.

“He kind of sucked me in for a little while with his charisma,” he said.

But in November, Lavato said, he will vote for a GOP candidate for the first time because of McCain’s opposition to abortion and patriotism. He questions Obama’s character because of his associations with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and William Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground.

Another issue is race. Since Obama launched his campaign, pundits and politicians have questioned whether Latinos will vote in large numbers for a black man.

The issue came to the surface here when Bernalillo County GOP Chairman Fernando C’ de Baca said: “The truth is that Hispanics came here as conquerors. African Americans came here as slaves. . . . Hispanics consider themselves above blacks. They won’t vote for a black president.”

His comments were loudly denounced on both sides, and he stepped down. However, for a small fraction of voters, De Baca’s words may resonate.

Antoinette Trujillo, 43, owns the Corner Store, a small grocery in Bernalillo stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables and strands of dried red chiles. Outside the front door, she placed a sign that read, “Obamanos! ’08"

An older Latino customer told her she ought to throw it on the road so cars would run over it.

“He didn’t want to vote for a black guy,” she said, rolling her eyes.

Several political observers said that for most voters, it is not overt racism but rather an unfamiliarity with black politicians.

Monahan said Obama’s surrogates, most notably New Mexico’s Latino governor, Bill Richardson, may have helped ease concerns about race. But he said the faltering economy may do more to bring skeptical voters to Obama.

“The money argument is trumping the race argument,” he said. “The economy has gotten to be such a huge issue that it may be washing away” everything else.

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seema.mehta@latimes.com


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