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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Parties Seeking to Speak Language of Latino Voters

Both Democrats and Republicans unveil TV ads targeting a crucial constituency.

March 06, 2004|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — An intense battle for Latino support in this fall's election got underway this week, as President Bush and a Democratic political group launched dueling Spanish-language television advertisements targeting a voting bloc that keeps growing in importance.

On Friday, the New Democrat Network launched a projected $5-million TV campaign with two commercials that promote the party's cause and criticize Bush.

The ads are appearing in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Albuquerque on Univision and Telemundo, the dominant Spanish-language networks, and will debut in Florida after that state's Tuesday primary.

One of the commercials portrays Democrats as friends of the Latino community. The other attacks Bush's record on education. "President Bush, why did you break your promise?" a Spanish-speaking schoolgirl asks, looking directly at the camera, in the latter ad.

The ad claims that the Bush administration has fallen billions of dollars short of an $18-billion annual funding commitment for education of disadvantaged schoolchildren. That commitment was part of the No Child Left Behind school reform law enacted in 2002.

Republicans say Bush has presided over historic increases in federal education spending and deny that the law has been underfunded. Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, noted that Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic nominee, voted for the reform law.

The Bush reelection campaign unveiled a Spanish-language ad on Thursday. Replicating a spot produced in English, the 30-second commercial asserts that Bush has helped improve the economy and shows images of the wreckage at the World Trade Center following the 2001 terrorist attacks. It went on the air in Las Vegas, Albuquerque, Miami, Orlando, Tampa, Phoenix and Tucson, according to Democratic and independent media monitors.

The budding ad war on Spanish-language outlets reflects the electoral math of a sharply divided country. New Mexico, Nevada and Florida were all closely fought in the 2000 presidential election. Bush won the latter two and barely lost the first.

In each of these states, there are growing numbers of Latino voters whose party allegiance is thought to be in flux. Arizona, experiencing similar demographic changes, is another state Democrats hope to wrest from Bush.

The anti-Bush ad that aired Friday is the latest example of political activity by a group not officially affiliated with the Democratic Party or the Kerry campaign. The New Democrat Network is a centrist policy group with close ties to several top congressional Democrats.

Another anti-Bush group, MoveOn.org Voter Fund, has periodically run English-language commercials critical of his policies, including some this week.

Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the New Democrat Network, said an anonymous Northern California couple pledged $1 million for the Spanish-language campaign. Other wealthy donors, she said, have pledged $1.5 million.

Henry G. Cisneros, the former president of Univision and a former Cabinet secretary under President Clinton, is helping to raise money to meet the group's $5-million goal for the ad effort.

At stake in the election are the votes of several million Latinos. An estimated 6 million voted in 2000, and some Democrats say 8 million or more could vote this year. Democratic Pollster Sergio Bendixen, based in Miami, said as many as 3.5 million of these potential voters are thought to be regular viewers of Spanish-language television.

"The party that engages them, communicates with them in a culturally sensitive way, has a tremendous advantage," Bendixen said. Many Spanish-language TV viewers, he said, "don't know much about American politics. If you communicate to them, speak their language, they tend to come your way."

The volume of Spanish-language political ads has grown in recent years, and experts say this election is likely to set a record. Kerry ran a Spanish-language ad in Albuquerque before the Feb. 3 New Mexico caucuses. Some of his Democratic rivals did likewise in New Mexico and Arizona, which also voted that day.

"Nobody's taking that voting bloc for granted," said Evan Tracey, an independent analyst of political ads based in Virginia.

President Clinton captured more than 70% of the Latino vote in his 1996 reelection, exit polling showed. But in 2000, the Democratic margin slipped.

The party's presidential candidate, Al Gore, took about 60% of the Latino vote while Bush claimed about a third. Helping Bush attract Latino support, analysts said, was his emphasis on improving schools and his record of good relations with Mexico as governor of Texas.

Democrats want to block Bush from further inroads among Latino voters.

"This is an electorate we're going to do very well with," said Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban American who is chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "The question is, do we maximize our capabilities in this community and ensure we don't take it for granted? If we take it for granted, we do so at our own peril."

Bush campaign officials stressed to reporters this week that they are targeting the Latino vote. So is the Republican National Committee.

"We will be reaching out to Latinos all across the country, communicating our message in English and in Spanish," said Nicole Guillemard, the RNC's director of outreach.

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