Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search) on Friday courted Hispanics, the nation's fastest growing minority population, offering a larger "piece of the American Dream" if John Kerry (search) is elected.

"I believe in building up our great middle class -- especially the millions of Hispanic Americans who are working hard and still struggling to get ahead," Edwards said in remarks prepared for a Hispanic get-out-the-vote organization.

"Your values are the values that built America: strong families, deep faith, and closely knit communities," Edwards said.

Both parties are actively courting Hispanics, an important voting bloc in the upcoming presidential election, especially in southwestern battleground states.

Nearly two-thirds of Hispanics supported Democrat Gore in the 2000 election. Still, President Bush made inroads with Hispanics and was rewarded with 35 percent of their vote. Bob Dole (search) had garnered just 21 percent in 1996 and Bush's father got 25 percent in 1992.

A self-made millionaire trial lawyer when elected to the Senate in 1998, Edwards, 51, cited his own rise from humble origins as the son of a textile mill worker father and postal clerk mother in the small town of Robbins, N.C.

"My story shouldn't be an exception, it should happen every day in America," said Edwards, noting he was the first member of his family to go to college.

"In Robbins, I learned about hard work, responsibility, family and faith," he said. "And today those values are still what brings families to Robbins -- the only thing that's changed is the town's 50 percent Latino.

"You can get an enchilada at the Quick-Check. But those families came to Robbins for the same reason my family lived there," Edwards said.

Specifically, Edwards urged Congress to pass stalled legislation to help immigrant farm workers establish legal residency. Kerry has said he would sign the bill if elected.

Some Republicans favor the bill, although it does not have the active support of the White House.

"It will offer a piece of the American Dream to the good people who work on our farms each day," Edwards said. He also said Kerry would send a broader immigration overhaul bill to Congress in his first 100 days.

In addition, Edwards said he and Kerry would support legislation to improve educational and health care opportunities for Hispanics.

His remarks were prepared for a speech late Friday to the Southwest Voters Registration Education Project Latino Vote 2004.

Mario Rodriguez, Bush-Cheney regional chairman, said in a statement that Kerry's economic plans would disadvantage the nearly 2 million Hispanic small-business owners and cause other hardships for the community. "I can't see many Latinos sharing those so-called values," he said.

Edwards flew to Los Angeles from Houston. Shortly after arriving, he made an impromptu stop at a farmers market and outdoor food court, plunging into a lunchtime crowd and shaking hands. "Go get 'em, John," a well-wisher shouted. "We're going to get them," Edwards replied.

He was attending two fund-raisers in Los Angeles, a private lunch at the Spago restaurant and an evening event in a hotel ballroom.

Campaign aides said one purpose of Edwards' inaugural solo cross-country campaign trip is to show he has appeal beyond the South, including among minorities.

Yet, polls have suggested Edwards' biggest strength is among whites, moderates, independents and Republicans, especially in rural areas and small towns.

During the primary season, his message did not immediately appeal to minorities, who tended to go with the Democratic favorite, Kerry.

In California, Hispanics made up 16 percent of the vote in the state's Democratic primary easily won by Kerry.

Mark Kornblau, an Edwards spokesman, said what matters now is how the Kerry-Edwards ticket stacks up against Bush-Cheney.