The Inside Scoop on La Raza and Latino Outreach by the Presidential Candidates

Despite appearances and poll numbers, neither presidential candidate has a lock on the Latino vote. The National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego, which just ended yesterday (7/15/08), showed that both candidates have to overcome a strong measure of doubt among Latinos – Obama because of his race and the bitter primary battle, and McCain because of his backtracking on immigration reform.

Obama appeared first, on Sunday, and McCain the next day. They were both well received but not with the same fervor: Obama got a bigger crowd, strongest applause, and two times more press.

By the time McCain came around on Monday, the press corps was diminished greatly, many activists didn’t show up for lunch –the overflow room that was full on Sunday was virtually empty on Monday- and the excitement level had noticeably dropped.

It’s completely anecdotal evidence, of course, but it shows that the Latino groups and activist crowd that usually attend the NCLR conferences support what the polls are saying. The latest Gallup Poll of Latinos shows a 30 point difference in support between Obama and McCain. Obama is getting close to 60 percent and McCain has about 29 percent.

That is a big advantage, but probably not enough to assure that a strong McCain push won’t take him closer to the famed 40% that President Bush got twice, and a chance to win in western states that could prove crucial to him.

In the current environment, where the Republican brand is “damaged” – this was the word used by a McCain person on a panel on Tuesday – a 60% latino vote for Obama is not impressive. He should get closer to the 78% of Latinos that voted Democratic in the primary to really show he’s got them, and to approach what Bill Clinton got in ‘96.

That’s why, behind closed doors, campaign operatives for Barack Obama were meeting with activists and other Latino leaders who were previously close to Hillary Clinton to set the scene for the upcoming general election campaign.

Many are already on board, including pollster Sergio Bendixen, who was famous for uttering the phrase, “Latinos have not shown an inclination for supporting Black candidates in the past,” when he was working for Hillary. Bendixen is now going to be doing strategy and focus groups with prospective Latino voters to fine tune the Obama message and get those not-so-inclined Latinos that he mentioned before to vote for Obama after all.

On the Republican side, former Bush Latino advertising guru Lionel Sosa is now with the campaign. Sosa was so upset about the tone of the Republican primary campaign –where all were trying to out-Tancredo Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo and his anti-immigrant fervor- that he crossed over to the Democratic side to work with New Mexico Governor – and one time presidential candidate – Bill Richardson.  He is now back in the Republican fold doing Spanish-language ads and strategy for McCain.

McCain is walking a tightrope on the issue of immigration. After taking the lead in 2006 to try and pass immigration reform, and taking a step back in 2007, still supporting the issue but not really involved in any negotiations, McCain took a different view during the primaries and in particular, during one Republican debate at the Simi Valley Reagan Library.

In that debate, McCain was asked about his support and sponsorship of immigration reform and if he would support it were it to come back. He said that it wouldn’t come back and that, in any case he wouldn’t support it because the American people didn’t want it.

On Monday, and in recent weeks, he has been talking about ensuring the security of the border first, creating a temporary worker program –the original Bush plan- and dealing humanely with the 12-million undocumented, who he calls “God’s creatures” in a recent ad.

At the NCLR conference he took some questions – Obama didn’t – and was confronted with displeasure about federal immigration raids, requests for assurance that he will support immigration reform once again, and other immigration-related questions. He said he was committed to reform but after ensuring the border is secure.

Many activists believe that without dealing with the whole problem there is no way the border can be secured and are not happy with this answer.

On Obama’s side, there are still some activists, particularly women, who have a hard time believing that the senator from Illinois can be as worthy a nominee for Latinos as the much loved Hillary Clinton.

On the first day of the conference, farm worker union legend Dolores Huerta told me that she would support Obama, “because we can do nothing else.” But she still looked pained by the idea of having to cast a vote for the guy who took it away from the first woman president-to-be. Huerta was a vocal and active surrogate for Clinton during the primaries, appearing on stage with her in front of Latino audiences throughout California.

Things are likely to get more intense in the following weeks as McCain’s campaign tries to organize Latino Republicans and evangelical voters to join his side, and Obama’s deploys hundreds of Latino organizers to do voter registration and put the word out about their man.

That famed “sleeping giant” – a term often applied to Latino voters – is probably gonna hear a big alarm clock ringing incessantly from now till November.

Pilar Marrero is the political editor and a columnist for La Opinión, and a reporter with Feet in Two Worlds.

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