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Obama Works on His Hispanic Problem

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Super Tuesday, with primaries in half a dozen states that have large Hispanic populations, shed some light on the presidential picks of America's largest minority.

Yet, given the results, questions remain. Hispanic voters are coveted but they're also complicated. They have conservative values but tend to support liberal policies. They care about the issues all Americans care about -- from education to health care to the Iraq War -- but take special interest in the immigration debate.

Most of all, Hispanics remain loyal to the Democratic Party even though they have shown a tendency to cross party lines to support moderate Republicans that they find more likable or attentive to their interests. At the moment, many Hispanics are choosing between Democratic presidential candidates and even that can get complicated.

Hillary Clinton played her best game in the larger states, and in California, New York and New Jersey, it was her strong support from Hispanics that helped carry her to victory.

According to CNN exit polls, Clinton got 69 percent of the Hispanic vote in California and 73 percent in New York.

Even so, Clinton didn't do nearly as well with Hispanics as recent polls suggested she would. She lost the Hispanic vote in Colorado and Illinois, states that she wound up losing to Obama. And in Arizona, which she won, she barely squeaked out a majority of the Hispanic vote -- 55 percent.

For months, in surveys of Hispanic voters, the New York senator had a better than 2-1 advantage over Obama. That kind of dominance came to an end last week. On Super Tuesday, Obama closed the gap, perhaps because of his support from younger Hispanics or because more Hispanics are becoming more comfortable with someone who, until only recently, was an unknown commodity.

Last month, Obama won 26 percent of the Hispanic vote in Nevada. Last week, he won the same percentage in New York. But he improved on that performance in California (29 percent) and Arizona (41 percent). In Illinois, it was 50 percent.

The good news for Obama is that the Hispanic vote is trending in his direction. And the news comes at a good time. March 4 brings another primary -- this one in Texas, where about 20 percent of registered voters are Hispanic.

The Obama campaign claimed all along that once Hispanics got to know the candidate, they'd consider him a simpatico.

That's swell. But Obama is never going to win a name-ID contest with Hillary Clinton, who benefits enormously from a brand that is still pretty well regarded in the Hispanic community.

Besides, look at the calendar. Team Obama is running out of time to get acquainted with Hispanics. The Obama campaign was slow to figure out how important the Hispanic vote would be in this election, and that gave Team Clinton time to get a big head start, line up endorsements, and set up a ground operation aimed specifically at Hispanics.

When Obama did decide to get serious about seeking the Hispanic vote, he chose the wrong strategy. Instead of reaching into the future and talking about where Hispanics were headed and how he would help take them there, Obama reached into the history books and played up the friendship between civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

The Clinton campaign undercut the story line by snagging the endorsement of the United Farm Workers Union, the organization that Chavez helped create.

Only recently did the Obama campaign figure out that its entree into the Hispanic community isn't through the old guard of the baby boom generation but through younger voters who might have no firsthand memory of Chavez and no particular fondness for the Clintons.

So now it is on to Texas, where Obama could again improve on his performance with Hispanics by sticking to the basics and continuing to inspire voters.

That won't be easy. Clinton has a strong operation on the ground, a South Texas-based Democratic political consultant told me recently. Her campaign got there early, and it lined up the endorsements of such old guard figures as Henry Cisneros. Still, the consultant said, the Lone Star State could go either way.

And Hispanics will have a lot to say about which way it goes.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group


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