President Bush is trying to push up his Hispanic vote to 40 percent in 2004 from between 24 and 35 percent in 2000, depending on various exit polls.

Lucky for him, say some experts, his goal is unlikely to be held up by the stalled immigration reforms he seemed ready to back prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"I think the community is cognizant of the effect of 9/11 and are anxious to see some reforms in [immigration], but at this point, they're being patient," said Leslie Sanchez, president of Impacto Group (search) in Washington and former director of Bush's Hispanic education office.

But that doesn't mean immigration reform won't be an issue on Latinos' radar screens.

"What's interesting about the immigration issue is, whether Latinos are native born or foreign born, it is sort of a framing issue," said Clarissa Martinez, director of state public policy for the National Council of La Raza (search). "Latino issues look at this issue as a way to gauge candidates' respect for the community."

"I would say the issue is about to spin into an election cycle where lines are going to be drawn and political knives are going to be drawn, which may be good for parties, but I doubt will be good for policy," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group.

Little headway has been made on the issue of immigration reform — aside from the political mudslinging that's to be expected over the issue — since the U.S.-Mexico migration compact stalled following the terror attacks.

Many pro-immigration groups and experts say they're still hopeful Bush can make progress.

"These are individuals who are building roads, and we don't give them a driver's license ... they take care of the elderly and the sick and we won't let them go into hospitals," said Juan Hernandez, a former cabinet official with Mexican President Vicente Fox's administration.

"These are some of the best people and we need to find a way to document them, to legalize them and to put them on the track toward citizenship if the United States wants to do that. But we have to bring them out of obscurity."

Hispanics make up the largest minority group in the United States. Based on July 2002 figures, two-thirds of the United States' 38.8 million Hispanics are of Mexican descent.

A 2000 election poll taken by the Pew Hispanic Center showed that Latino voters tend to identify themselves as Democrats rather than Republicans by a more than 2-to-1 margin.

Asked which political party has more concern for Hispanics, 45 percent of Latinos surveyed said Democrats, 10 percent pointed to Republicans and 40 percent said there is no difference. Questioned who was better at handling the economy —- Bush or congressional Democrats — the respondents split evenly.

Most Hispanic immigrants want to come out of the shadows and be recognized as legal, tax-paying citizens, say experts, and immigration reform is just one of several issues from which to form an opinion on the presidential candidates.

"Hispanics aren't voting on immigration issues," said Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. "If they vote Republican, they vote in favor of them either for financial reasons, respect for law or perhaps as a matter of faith and family values."

Sanchez said Hispanics' utmost concerns are domestic issues like education reform, affordable housing and health care. And because they're becoming more "upwardly mobile" and more concerned about economic issues, they'll look more at the candidates' stances on those issues than what party they're from.

"2004 is going to hinge on Hispanic voters and women because these are the open-minded, independent, swing votes and look at the states we're vying for," Sanchez said, listing Hispanic-heavy states like Arizona and Nevada, which will be up for grabs. "To the extent [candidates] make substantive attempts to reach out to the community, then they should expect that the community is going to pay attention.

Sanchez said Bush "has a very strong record to run off in the Hispanic community" but he doesn't underestimate the competitiveness of the next election.

Louis DeSipio, a research scholar with the Tomas Rivera Institute (search), a Latino issues think tank associated with the University of Southern California, added that it definitely couldn't hurt if immigration reforms were enacted — if not for Bush's sake then for the GOP in the long run.

"I don't think the expectation [for reform] at the mass level was really all that high," DeSipio said. "My suspicion about the discussions within the White House during the summer 2001 were more looking to the long-term future for Republicans and the Latino vote rather than specific gains in the Latino vote for 2004."