A leading Democratic pollster recently reassured his party that its majority share of the Hispanic vote is holding steady as the presidential campaign heats up. But some in the party aren't so sure.

Some Hispanic Democrats are afraid Republicans, who have spent months preparing and have millions to spend, could gain ground in several key states as the GOP aims to boost President Bush's Hispanic support to at least 40 percent. He got 35 percent of that vote in 2000.

"What I'm worried about is excessive Republican advertising among Hispanics without an appropriate response," said New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (search), a Democrat who is Hispanic. "I have nightmares these ads might penetrate the five-point spread."

The Bush-Cheney re-election campaign started its Hispanic effort last August, has Hispanic teams in 30 states and plans an aggressive drive to recruit Hispanic voters face to face and through ads.

The campaign of John Kerry (search), Bush's Democratic rival, also plans an aggressive pursuit of the Hispanic vote, but the Massachusetts senator has yet to pick an Hispanic outreach coordinator.

Candidates need to appeal to Hispanics on a broader range of issues than in the past — such as home ownership, education and small-business ownership — not just immigration and civil rights, Richardson said.

Hispanics are the fastest growing minority group in the country, numbering 35.3 million in 2000 and projected to increase at the rate of about 1.2 million a year over the next decade.

Census figures show about 21 million voting age Hispanics in 2000, slightly more than one-fourth of whom said they voted in that year's presidential election.

A recent poll by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg found Bush's support among Hispanics at 34 percent.

Matthew Dowd, a strategist and pollster for Bush's re-election campaign, pegged it at closer to 40 percent currently. In 1996, Republican Bob Dole got the support of 21 percent of Hispanics.

"The gains in 2000 were personal. They were Bush's gains, not the Republican Party's," said Sergio Bendixen, a Democratic pollster.

Bush remains relatively popular with Hispanics. About half view him favorably, while about one-fourth view him unfavorably, according to a recent National Annenberg Election Survey.

Sharon Castillo, who works on Hispanic outreach for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Bush's efforts to change immigration laws and his policies on national security, education and taxes are popular with Hispanics.

As Republicans and Democrats wrestle for the Hispanic vote, the number of Hispanic independents is growing, said Roberto Deposada, a former Republican National Committee organizer.

Analysts put the number of swing voters between 10 percent and 25 percent.

Alvaro Cifuentes (search), chairman of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus (search), said Democrats will have their hands full because the president "has had the podium for four years and can only build on what he had." But he said Democrats can do well if they take bold positions on issues Hispanics care about.

Both parties are looking closely at Arizona, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada as states where the Hispanic vote could be pivotal in November. Bush was headed to Albuquerque and Phoenix on Friday to discuss home ownership.

Republicans are heartened by the 2002 results in Florida, where Gov. Jeb Bush (search) was re-elected with a solid majority of the Hispanic vote, and in New York, where Gov. George Pataki (search) got between 40 percent and 50 percent of the vote.

In California, Republican gubernatorial candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) and Tom (search) McClintock together got 41 percent of the Hispanic vote running against an Hispanic Democrat in the state's recall election last fall.

Democrats claim the issues are on their side, and say many Hispanics struggling under the Bush economy want better funding for education and health care.

"Our challenge," said Rep. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, "is to reaffirm our history with Hispanics. And we have to wrap the president in his own record."