WASHINGTON – Presidential candidates and the political parties they represent are brushing up on their Spanish in hopes of attracting the Hispanic vote in the November 2004 elections.
An increasingly important voting bloc, Hispanics represent the largest ethnic voter demographic in big states such as California, Florida, New York and Texas. Hispanic registered voters totaled 7.5 million in the 2000 Census.
Aware of the growing number and their political impact, political parties and presidential hopefuls are looking for ways to attract Hispanics to their positions, including posting statements and policy information in Spanish on their Web sites.
Following a pattern started by President Bush in his 2000 candidacy, Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, are brushing up on their language skills and using Spanish learned during classes and on the road.
But Hispanic community leaders are warning the candidates that they expect more than just lip service.
"Both parties have to fight for the hearts and minds of Hispanic voters," said Gabriela Lemus, a policy specialist for the League of United Latin American Citizens. "It's not enough to speak Spanish to us. We're being acknowledged, but window dressing isn't going to do it."
Among the issues of highest concern to Hispanics are education, employment, immigration and health care. Specifically, Hispanics want more access to quality education and the university system, particularly since the Hispanic population in the United States is very young. About two-thirds are 25 or younger.
Latin Americans and Mexicans also want talks on immigration policy and the possibility of citizenship and benefits for immigrants already in the country.
The community is upset that Bush, who won 35 percent of the Hispanic vote, more than any other Republican presidential candidate, has brushed off Hispanic priorities, since the Sept. 11 attacks framed his administration as one that has sought to tighten borders and regulations on immigrants.
Prior to the attacks, Bush was in frequent talks with Mexican President Vicente Fox on several issues including cross-border trade and the easing of rules for Mexicans seeking work in the United States.
On top of that, White House political adviser Karl Rove has been at the forefront of the courtship. New Jersey Rep. Bob Menendez, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Rove "gets it. And hopefully so do the leaders of the Democratic Party."
Since Sept. 11, however, the effort has faltered.
"The outreach efforts get the attention of the community, but there needs to be some proof that action follows outreach," said Clarissa Martinez, a policy specialist at the National Council of La Raza. "We are hopeful that the Bush administration will prove it plans to make the tent bigger."
The GOP has set out on that path this weekend, holding the first of 20 or more recruitment seminars planned around the country for potential Hispanic candidates. Political hopefuls will learn about getting started in politics, fund raising and dealing with the media
But the effort has a long way to go. As of June 2002, there were 1,521 elected Democratic Hispanics and 116 elected Republican Hispanics, said Larry Gonzalez of the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
Adding to the imbalance, polls suggest that almost two-thirds of Hispanic voters identify themselves as Democrats, a fifth as Republicans and the rest independent, said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University.
But Republicans eager to recruit more Hispanic candidates hope to capitalize on the Democratic filibuster of Bush judicial nominee Miguel Estrada, a Honduran-born immigrant who, if approved, would become the first Hispanic on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
The appeals court is a stepping-stone for the Supreme Court, and many analysts say if Estrada were on the bench when a vacancy on the court opened during a Republican presidency, he would have the chance to go all the way.
Republicans aggressively pushing Estrada say Democratic efforts to impose a 60-vote requirement on Estrada through procedural votes -- rather than allow a straight up or down vote for which Estrada already has the needed 50-vote margin -- demonstrate their readiness to sacrifice the Hispanic community for the sake of politics.
"The Democrats think they own the Hispanic community and don't want to give a Republican president a political victory," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.
Democrats continue to block Estrada's nomination for the court because they suspect he is too conservative. They are demanding documents from the Clinton Justice Department in which Estrada served in order to prove it. The current Justice Department refuses to give up those documents, citing attorney privilege.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.