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In the War for the Hispanic Vote, Education Is the First Battle

Friday, May 28, 2004; 7:16 AM

 

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer

  Much of the war over the nation's political future is being fought in a handful of states and in a language most Americans don't understand, Spanish.

  Among the swing states in which candidates are focusing most of their attention, the Hispanic vote is growing and could tip the balance in four of them -- Florida, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

  One key issue for Hispanics may be education, especially President Bush's No Child Left Behind initiative. A March poll of 1,000 likely Hispanic voters done for the Miami Herald by John Zogby showed that a slight majority opposed a reduction in federal funds for schools that do not meet state guidelines on student achievement. Such a carrot and stick approach is a key concept of the president's education reform plan.

  After the Democratic primaries, while Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry was broke and struggling to develop a general election strategy, an independent group called the New Democratic Network began helping him with Hispanic voters. NDN is a so-called "527" group that can accept unlimited donations from any source, including corporations and unions.

  On Thursday, NDN announced that another 527 group, the Media Fund, is putting $1.5 million toward NDN's $5 million Spanish-language ad plan. Since March, NDN has already spent $1.1 million for airtime on Spanish language television and radio stations in 10 markets in Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada.

  NDN vice president Maria Cardona said in an interview this week that the most effective ad has been one called "Broken Promises" that the group rolled out last December in Orlando and Las Vegas and brought back for the final weeks of May. The ad accuses Bush of breaking his promise to "be a friend of the Latino community and do what's best for our children." In an implicit reference to No Child Left Behind, the ad says Bush "promised us he would invest $18 billion for the poorest schools. Write to the White House and tell the president that friends keep their word." Then a Hispanic girl looks at the camera and says, "President Bush, why did you break your promise?"

  NDN officials are ecstatic because the ad has been seen by 70 percent of Spanish-speaking viewers in Orlando and Las Vegas, according to internal polling. Cardona, a former Democratic National Committee official, claimed that no presidential campaign or third-party group in any campaign has spent so much, so early on Spanish-language advertising. "This is sort of historic, and we're already seeing the impact of this," Cardona said. "This will impact the electoral landscape of this country."

  Bush responded with an ad of his own. Earlier this month, one day after rolling out a positive ad on No Child Left Behind, his campaign released a Spanish version in the same states where NDN had been running its ads. "John Kerry praised the president's reforms, even voted for them," the ad says. "But now, under pressure from education unions, Kerry has changed his mind. Kerry's new plan: less accountability to parents." Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel downplayed the NDN ads and said that the Bush campaign's Spanish-language ads were simply a necessity in these heavily Hispanic states.

  Four years ago, one of the most important factors in Bush's success was his ability to capture a larger portion of the Hispanic vote than his Republican predecessors. Bush's message of "compassionate conservatism," his ability to speak Spanish, his efforts to reach out to leaders such as Mexican president Vicente Fox and his carefully crafted rhetoric ("family values do not end at the Rio Grande" was a favorite stump speech line) helped him garner 35 percent of the Hispanic vote. In 1996, Republican candidate Bob Dole had only 21 percent of the Hispanic vote. Although Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000, his much stronger Hispanic vote helped him carry Florida and Arizona, both of which were essential to his Electoral College victory.

  In July 2001, Bush's pollster, Matthew Dowd, told Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall that Republicans needed to increase their percentage among Hispanics. "As a realistic goal, we have to get somewhere between … 38 to 40 percent of the Hispanic vote," Dowd told Edsall.

  Scott Stanzel would not predict whether Bush would meet the 38 percent threshold, but said the president's agenda was appealing to a broad swath of the Hispanic electorate. "Latino children are going to better schools because of President Bush's leadership in helping to close the achievement gap," he said. "For the first time a majority of minority families have become first-time homeowners. Two million now own their small businesses. They have received tax relief and become eligible for new prescription drug benefits under Medicare benefit. The president is working with his counterparts in our hemisphere to strengthen human rights institutions, and he's seeking to expand trade with our Latin American neighbors."

  Democrats say education is only one of the political problems for the president in seeking the Hispanic vote. The Zogby poll from March put Kerry's lead among Hispanics at 58 percent to 33 percent for Bush. Democrats argue that Bush has failed to capitalize on his relationship with Fox, and Kerry has accused Bush of failing to promote democratic reforms in Venezuela. Even some conservative Hispanics have accused Bush of doing virtually nothing to confront Cuba's Fidel Castro and promote reforms in that country until the election heated up this spring. The poll found that 37 percent of respondents ranked Bush's "policy toward Latin America" as excellent or good compared to 57 percent who ranked it as fair or poor. More than 90 percent ranked U.S. policy toward Latin America as very important or somewhat important.

  At a time when a strong majority of the general public was saying it supported the war with Iraq, the poll found that 54 percent of likely Hispanic voters opposed it. Much has happened since then. That poll was taken before the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib, the attacks in Fallujah and the uprising in Najaf. Given the level of disapproval over Bush's handling of Iraq, it's probably fair to assume that Bush has not gained ground.

  However, many Hispanic leaders have been underwhelmed by Kerry's performance. In April, Raul Yzaguirre, the president of the National Council of La Raza, wrote Kerry an open letter criticizing his campaign for having few Hispanics in top positions and doing little to appeal directly to Hispanic voters. But Yzaguirre said Thursday that he and Kerry have since spoken in person, and that Kerry had reassured him that he understood the Hispanic communities' issues of concern, especially immigration reform. "He has responded with tangible results," Yzaguirre said.

 

 

 

 

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