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Latino Votes Pursued in Few, Unusual Places

Politics: Big pushes in large states don't make much sense because they are solidly in either Gore or Bush camp. Ethnic group's activists are deeply disappointed.


MORA, N.M — The battle for the Latino vote was supposed to be fought in the barrios and suburbs of Southern California and New York City, and in states such as Illinois and New Jersey. But now, with the clock ticking toward election day, the cries of "Viva Bush" and "Viva Gore" are being heard in only a few, unexpected places.

Last week the GOP's drive to win Hispanics--the preferred term for Spanish-surnamed people in New Mexico--arrived in Mora, a town of 1,900 people where crumbling adobe buildings line the main drag. An audience of a dozen people and Savino Garcia's Solo Band waited to greet a GOP caravan.

"I've always voted Republican," said 70-year-old Juan Leyva. Later, after a few speeches, he was rewarded for his loyalty to the party with a free meal.

Elsewhere, in places that are home to millions of Latino voters, only a smattering of ads is running in Spanish-language media. In general, the battle for Latino hearts and minds is a lesser sideshow to the all-out push to win centrist voters in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

With Texas in George W. Bush's camp and California, New York, Illinois and even New Jersey firmly in the Al Gore camp, big Spanish-language media buys don't make much sense. Instead, those ads running are turning up in places such as New Mexico and Nevada, and in Midwestern states where Latinos make up only a fraction of the vote.

"The circumstances of this election have led both candidates to ignore the Latino vote almost completely, because tactically, they don't see it as important," said Hector Orci, founder of La Agencia, an ad agency that targets Latinos. In the last weeks of the campaign, "it's gone from zero to a little more than zero, from nothing to nearly nothing. That's not enough."

The sense of disappointment among Latino activists is deep, especially given the promise of the primaries and the summer conventions, when both sides declared this would be the year in which the Latino vote was vital.

At the Republican convention, the Mexican crooner Vicente Fernandez took to the stage and sang a tune. A lengthy video touted Texas Gov. Bush's links to tejanos in places such as San Antonio and Brownsville. And when the nominee himself finished his acceptance speech, the orchestra launched into a Ricky Martin song.

Vice President Gore, too, professed a love for all things Latino. He worked hard at honing his pronunciation of "si se puede" ("yes we can"). He liked to tell Mexican American audiences that he hoped his next grandchild would be born on Cinco de Mayo (because his first was born on the Fourth of July).

These days, the Bush and Gore campaigns aren't speaking as much Spanish.

One of the few states where both campaigns agree the Latino vote is crucial is New Mexico, a tossup state whose five electoral votes are up for grabs. And even here the battle for voters such as Juan Leyva is in many ways a halfhearted affair, with one side all but conceding the vast majority of the vote to the other.

"We're very outnumbered here," said John Sanchez, sheriff in Mora County and one of a handful of Republican elected officials in northern New Mexico, a sort of rural "heartland" for Hispanic voters.

A recent poll of Hispanic voters in New Mexico by the William C. Velasquez Center found Gore beating Bush by an almost 3-1 ratio. The large gap, mirrored in other polls, is surprising given Bush's strong appeal among Latinos in his own, neighboring state.

The GOP's inability to appeal to large numbers of Latinos outside of Texas and Florida says much about the diversity of the electorate. The down-home style that won over so many Mexican Americans to Bush in places such as San Antonio and Houston has not translated to much support in Los Angeles or San Francisco.

Gore has had a similar problem. The liberal social policies that draw strong support from Puerto Ricans in New York and Chicago fall flat in South Florida, where Cuban Americans are still angry about what happened to the castaway boy Elian Gonzalez.

To help win over Hispanics in New Mexico, the GOP assembled a team of three Mexican American politicos from Texas to tour the state's northern region Sunday. Their daylong bus tour was distinguished by the sort of low-level patronizing and cultural cliches that are the hallmark of both major parties' efforts to reach Latino voters.

In Las Vegas, a community of old brick storefronts northeast of Santa Fe, the GOP event opened with the blaring trumpets and swooning violins of a mariachi band. U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici introduced "three very good friends of George W. Bush who also happen to be Hispanic." El Paso Mayor Carlos Ramirez then spoke, followed by Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) and Texas Railroad Commissioner Tony Garza.

"I know that some of you, when you get Texans coming here, you want to say, 'Chicano, go home,' " Garza told the crowd, to a smattering of laughter. "But today, we're all amigos."

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