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Obama banks on Latinos

Miller is a Times staff writer.

In the last days of the campaign, Republicans and Democrats are walking the precincts here with lists of registered Latino voters who may be the key to victory in the Western battleground states, and this is what they are finding: padlocks on front doors, “bank owned” placards in the yards and, among those still in their homes, growing support for Barack Obama’s promise of change.

The Spanish-speaking canvassers -- immigrants or children of immigrants themselves -- come face to face with a frayed American dream. Many residents who answer an earnest knock say they have lost their hotel and casino jobs and are selling their cars while awaiting eviction notices.

“I’m for Obama,” Gustavo Mora, 64, told a Republican campaign worker on his doorstep last week. “I’m losing my house. That one next door is gone. Across the street, Chinese people bought that house. . . . The economy is so bad, and I am afraid [John] McCain has the same ideas as President Bush, since he’s a Republican too.”

Miriam Mora-Barajas, 26, responded that McCain understands the needs of entrepreneurs like Mora, who owns two ice cream trucks, and that the candidate opposes raising taxes on small businesses because it means they will have less money to invest.

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But Mora said he didn’t have money to invest as it was, and he wondered how he would rent an apartment with a credit record showing he defaulted on his home loan.

“We know Obama is younger and less experienced, but the country needs a change,” Mora said.

Mora’s views are reflected in recent polls that show Latino voters could provide the margin of victory for Obama in Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico -- states that went for President Bush in 2004 and that account for 19 electoral votes. If either candidate sweeps the big states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, he could win without these Western states. But if the bigger states are split, each candidate would probably need the Western states for an electoral college victory.

The importance of those states was underscored Saturday, when the McCain and Obama campaigns made stops in New Mexico and Nevada.

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The William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan public policy center in Los Angeles, analyzed polling data from the three Western states and Florida. It found that Latino voters provided no advantage to either side in Florida despite long-standing support for the Republican Party by Cuban Americans.

In the Western states, the Latino vote is growing in size and as a percentage of the total, and it is favoring the Democratic Party more than in previous years.

Latinos make up 32.4% of registered voters in New Mexico, 11.4% in Nevada and 9.9% in Colorado. The institute examined data from eight polling firms and found that Obama’s lead over McCain in Nevada would be 42.4% to 40.7% without Latino voters -- a difference that’s within the margin of error. Include Latino voters, however, and Obama’s lead grows to 50%, versus 43% for McCain.

That only tells part of the story, according to Antonio Gonzalez, president of the institute. In the last presidential election, 60% of Latinos in Nevada voted for Democratic candidate John F. Kerry and 40% for Bush. This time, polls show a 7- to 10-point increase for Obama.

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“Two things are happening: The Latino vote is growing, and there’s a bigger margin of support for Obama,” Gonzalez said. “The Latino vote has been important in New Mexico for a long time, and it continues to grow, but in Nevada and Colorado, this is new.”

In New Mexico, McCain has a 4-point lead without Latino voters, and Obama has an 8-point lead with the Latino vote. And in Colorado, a statistical tie without Latinos jumps to 51% for Obama versus 45% for McCain when Latinos are included.

The McCain campaign had hoped to grow support among conservative Latinos by emphasizing “family values” issues, such as his opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage, as well as the candidate’s history of support for comprehensive immigration overhaul. For Fernando Romero, a Latino Democrat and political commentator, these were decisive factors.

“I am antiabortion and pro-life, and I believe what McCain said at Saddleback Church: that life begins at conception,” Romero said at a McCain field office in a Las Vegas shopping center. “It is difficult to turn my back on John McCain.”

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Obama has said he supports the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision overturning laws banning abortion.

Romero noted that McCain is a Westerner who has had lifelong relationships with Latinos, including fellow prisoner of war Everett Alvarez, who is campaigning for him. Romero believes the Arizona Republican will push for immigration overhaul, as he has in the past, and will stand up to the Republican Party when he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

But Democratic and Republican activists working the precincts say the economy is the main issue for most voters. The war in Iraq is second on the minds of Latinos, many of whom have friends and family in Iraq. A few said they opposed McCain for having moved away from comprehensive immigration overhaul as a presidential candidate.

Both parties are advertising heavily on Spanish-language radio and television. At McCain headquarters, they are distributing “Estamos Unidos: McCain” bumper stickers and “Latinas con McCain” lawn signs. At the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, meanwhile, dozens of workers loaded up on Obama door hangers and bilingual lists of groups offering food, healthcare and foreclosure aid.

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Among those pounding the pavement for Obama were Santos Garcia, who voted for George H.W. Bush before the Persian Gulf War turned him into a Democrat, and Irma Sanchez, who, like a majority of Nevada Democrats, supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state’s January caucus. Jairo Bermudez was another canvasser, but like many Latinos, he is not yet a citizen and therefore is ineligible to vote. All three are casino shop stewards working for the union in favor of Obama.

They carried red binders full of street maps and the names and addresses of union members who were registered voters. By the fourth day of early voting in Nevada, about 70,000 people had already cast ballots in Clark County, and campaign workers were hoping to get many more to the polls before election day.

The Obama supporters walked past empty stucco houses to others in full Halloween regalia, the smell of cooking chile relleno wafting over the East Las Vegas neighborhood. Vans parked curbside advertised small businesses: Instead of Joe the Plumber, it was Javier’s Professional Carpet Cleaning, Pepe Construction Framing and Maganas Tree Service.

Like mail carriers, the canvassers worried about angry dogs and worse. Garcia said that Obama workers had been roughed up and that one had had a gun pulled on him. Most doorbells went unanswered, because the occupants were either at work, sleeping after the graveyard shift or uninterested in talking politics.

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When they found a registered voter at home, the canvassers switched into get-out-the-vote mode. They offered a ride to the early-voting booths. If the resident said he planned to vote Nov. 4, they marked their sheets to check back on election day. If the resident said she planned to vote that afternoon, canvassers made a note to check for her name on a list of voters who had cast ballots that is issued by the county each night. And if the name wasn’t there, they would circle back the following day.

At one house, Garcia was surprised to find that the registered voter was Jose Torres, 46, an old friend and former colleague in Washington state whom he hadn’t seen in years. Both were butchers there before heading south to better-paying jobs in desert casinos.

Torres said he had lost his job at Caesars Palace when tourism began to drop off nine months ago. He got another job at Trump International Hotel and Tower but was laid off three months ago. He pointed to two Ford Malibus in the frontyard and said he was trying to make a living buying and selling automobiles. It wasn’t enough. “I’m going to lose this house,” Torres said.

Garcia asked Torres whom he would vote for.

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“Por el moreno,” Torres said, using a respectful word for a black man. “He’s the best. The other one is just going to keep helping the rich.”

Garcia, 59, said he encounters Latinos worried that if Obama wins, African Americans will feel empowered and lord their status over Latinos, particularly at work. Other voters, however, argue that anyone who has faced discrimination would be good for all minorities.

“We’ve been to Republican houses that are voting for Obama, and we’ve seen morenos who are voting for McCain,” said Bermudez.

Irma Martinez, 48, finds a lot of disappointed Clinton supporters. “They say they wanted to vote for Hillary, and I say, ‘I did too. But this is the one who won, and we have to support him. He can help our people,’ ” she said between houses.

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As the sun went down, children came out to ride bikes, and men gathered in a frontyard on Samantha Street to usher in the evening with Bud Light and ranchera music.

“How can McCain say the economy is strong the way we are here?” asked Jesus Veliz, 42, who works in a Mexican restaurant. “We’re not only worse off here in the United States, but back in Mexico they’re worse off than before.”

The others nodded. They worked in an Italian restaurant, at a casino and at a construction company but worried that the work might not last beyond the election.

“No hay bisnes,” said Ivan Rodriguez, 25. “If there’s no business, they don’t make money, and we don’t work.”

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marjorie.miller@latimes.com


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