Two recent surveys of Latino voters offer very different pictures about a population that is exploding in both numbers and influence.

But one common theme transcends the partisan spin: Latinos cannot be taken for granted at the polls come Election Day.

“This is something I’ve been telling the Democrats for months, that the party can no longer see the Latino vote as a base vote, they need to look at them as a swing vote,” said Maria Cardona, spokeswoman for the centrist New Democrat Network (search), which commissioned a recent poll of Hispanic voters. “If we don’t do that, there could be trouble ahead."

The NDN-commissioned survey, released June 17, found that despite maintaining high favorability ratings with Latinos, President Bush would receive only 34 percent of their vote when matched up with a Democratic candidate, who would receive 48 percent.

Those numbers for Bush are down from 2002, said Cardona, when he received 44 percent in a hypothetical match-up with former Vice President Al Gore, who received 46 percent.

“What we have found in this latest poll is that Bush has lost considerable support among Latino voters,” she said.

The NDN poll also found 61 percent of Latino voters are either not aware President Bush has nominated  Washington, D.C., lawyer Miguel Estrada (search) to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and that Democrats in the Senate have been blocking the vote through a filibuster. Nor do many voters seem to care.

Cardona even said some Latinos have confused Estrada, a conservative who worked under the Clinton administration, with actor Erik Estrada (search), best know for his role in 1980s television action series, CHiPs.

“It turns out the majority of registered voters could care less,” Cardona said. “It’s way too insider baseball, too inside the Beltway.”

Republicans have a very different take on the NDN numbers, and released their own poll the same week. It found Bush maintains a 65 percent job approval rating with Latinos, and also said 80 percent surveyed felt it was important Estrada be the first Hispanic to sit on the federal bench.

"Its bad news for the Democrats,” insisted Sharon Castillo, deputy director of communications for the Republican National Committee (search). She said the Democrats’ own poll indicates that their party’s support from Latinos has plummeted from 72 percent in 1996 to 48 percent in 2003 when matched up with the Republican president.

She said the RNC poll indicates more Hispanics consider themselves conservative than liberal, and she believes that in the last three years the GOP has made significant inroads with this diverse voting group.

“Latinos are realizing they have been taken for granted and we have seen dramatic changes in the dynamics of their vote,” she said, pointing to the 2002 midterm elections, where Republicans claimed a number of victories, including the re-election of Gov. Jeb Bush in Florida.

But Robert de Posada, president of the Washington-based Latino Coalition (search), said Wednesday that both sides are putting their best spin on what the real message — that the Hispanic vote is up for grabs, and both parties are going to have to work hard to get it.

“They’re both partisan polls and they are obviously going to be skewed,” he said. “I think its somewhere in the middle, where most Hispanics lie.”

He said that most people don’t know who Estrada is, but when they find out, most are generally interested in seeing him succeed to the bench, despite the political and ideological circumstances surrounding his nomination.

“Its (NDN poll) is accurate in the sense that (nomination) is not a priority for most Hispanic families,” he said. “But as Hispanics, they are outraged when they hear how he has been treated.”

The RNC reports that while Hispanic voters counted for 4 percent of the electorate in 2000, it is expected to reach 7 percent in the 2004 presidential election, reflecting the huge population boom of Hispanics in the U.S. — approximately 35.5 million and growing, according to the 2000 census.

De Posada points out that while Latinos share the same concerns for family security, jobs, education and healthcare as most Americans, their urgency and positions on these issues often depend on where they live in the country.

“We advocate for an independent movement, simply because we want people to compete for the Latino vote,” he said.