NORCROSS, Ga. – Their accents were more south Georgia than South America, but that didn't stop a group of Republican candidates from visiting a Mexican restaurant in Gwinnett County recently to make a pitch for Hispanic voters.
"Buenos noches! Me llamo Saxby Chambliss," said the Moultrie Congressman running for Senate.
Even a no-nonsense politician like Rep. Bob Barr lined up behind the beef fajitas buffet to warm up to the group called "Amigos de Bush." Barr referred to Saxby as "Amigo Saxby" and himself as "Amigo Bob."
There's a good reason to learn a new language for campaigning. Georgia's Hispanic population more than tripled from 1990 to 2000, bringing the total to 435,000.
Experts suspect there could be more than 1 million Hispanics here by 2010, and both parties are angling to catch a piece of the powerful new voting demographic.
"We ignore Hispanics at our peril," Barr said.
Both parties tout themselves as a natural home for the expanding Hispanic population.
In Hall County, which is 20 percent Hispanic, Democratic Party director Bill Chandler tells recent immigrants that his party welcomes different cultures and looks out for blue-collar workers.
"The Democratic party is the party of the working person," he said.
Republicans are trying to sell their social conservatism. Many Hispanics are Catholic, oppose abortion and respond well to family-values themes, said Clay Cox, a Republican candidate for the 13th District.
"We're the party of families," Cox told the Amigos de Bush group. Later, Cox said the party embraces religion: "In this country, we're in our strongest position when we're on our knees and our heads are bowed."
State GOP Chairman Ralph Reed said the party is sending out Spanish-language campaign literature for the first time this summer. Reed said that winning immigrants over is vital because when newcomers move to Georgia, they're likely to pick up political allegiances from Hispanics already here.
"There's no question that wave is coming, and we plan to be in front of it," he said.
Hispanic activists said they're glad politicians are making an effort to win them over, but warned against believing that Hispanics will eventually pick one side or the other.
"The Hispanic community is not monolithic. We never have been," said Luz Borrero, director of the Latin American Association in Atlanta.
Indeed, the half-dozen or so Hispanic candidates running for state offices this fall are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
Spanish-speaking voters are likely to vote for other Hispanics regardless of their parties, said Pedro Marin, a Gwinnett County Democrat running for the state House. Marin endorses a Republican Latino running for the state House in a nearby district.
"We need representation any which way it comes," said Marin, noting that a Hispanic candidate has never been elected to a state office in Georgia.
Even sworn Republicans like Yesenia Cienfuegos, 27, said she'd consider crossing parties to vote for a Hispanic candidate. After the Amigos de Bush meeting, Cienfuegos said Spanish-speaking Georgians have waited long enough for politicians who share their backgrounds.
"I can tell most Latinos lean Democratic, and they ask me how come I'm a Republican," she said. "But really what we want most of all is to elect some good Latinos to office to look out for us."