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Wooing Latinos, Obama Banks on Words, Strategy Over Actions

Wooing Latinos, Obama Banks on Words, Strategy Over Actions

By Alexis Simendinger - May 13, 2011

Political realities prompted President Obama and his team to lavish time and attention this week on Latinos -- during a speech about immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, a prayer breakfast in Washington, interviews with Hispanic media, and White House conference calls to Hispanic elites and online entreaties -- a full 19 months before Election Day.

"I want you to know that I'm listening," the president said at a prayer breakfast with Hispanic clergy. "I'll keep doing my part. I'll keep pushing and working with Congress. . . . I'm asking you to keep on activating, getting involved, mobilizing."

At 16 percent of the population, Latinos are now the largest U.S. minority, and could tip the outcomes in battleground states in a close 2012 presidential election. Their votes are important in key states Obama won last time, such as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia, as well as states he lost, including Texas, Arizona and Georgia.

For that reason, Obama has accepted lessons from 2008, chiefly the importance of directly and respectfully reassuring the Hispanic community that its concerns -- including jobs, education, immigration and health care -- are his concerns. While the GOP presidential field shakes out, the president is making his pitch for four more years.

"If Obama picks up 500,000 more Hispanic votes across the country, that is huge," said a Republican campaign consultant who has studied Latino voters for GOP candidates, and who asked to speak on background.

Obama and his advisers say there is an opening for a Democrat to win Texas for the first time since Jimmy Carter carried it in 1976. Making a serious play for it requires "a heavy investment of at least $25 million to punch the ticket," said one Democratic strategist who is close to the president's re-election team. "They have to make a cost-benefit analysis."

Winning Texas may be a stretch, but it's still a useful boast, appealing to Latinos there (while putting GOP challengers on notice that the Lone Star state, once reliably red, could require some serious campaign resources to defend). But it's still an uphill fight: Obama lost Texas in 2008 with 44 percent of the vote, to John McCain's 56 percent.

A majority of Hispanic voters in 2008 favored Hillary Clinton before switching their support after the primaries to the largely unknown senator from Illinois. Obama went on to capture 67 percent of the Latino vote, while McCain -- whose Arizona Senate seat and earlier leadership on immigration were presumed to be calling cards -- attracted just 31 percent. As the incumbent, however, Obama has to talk more about what he's delivered than what he promises. The "Si Se Puede" battle cry Obama used at campaign rallies has become "Yes We Still Can" for a second term.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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